Triplogue - Gujarat I:
Dungarpur to Palitana

3 December, Dungarpur to Himatnagar/Ahmedabad, 99km (a)

Last night Peter Lorre advised us not to take the shortcut back to the main highway, even though it would save us fifty kilometers of riding. "It is a broken road, and the people are hostile peasants, not good people. They will see your white skin and think bad things." Of course we ignored his adamant advice, which was spot-on accurate regarding the road but totally off vis-à-vis the locals, who couldn’t have been more friendly or gracious.

Practically everyone we passed smiled and waved at us. Many peasants tilling the soil dropped their tools when they saw us, pressed their hands together, bowed and emitted gracious "namaste"s. When we reached a closed railway crossing the many people waiting patiently on either side for a train to pass insisted we go through (the train was nowhere in sight), going so far as to hold the gate up for us. Further down the road a whole crowd of villagers screamed "Stop!" at me. Taking them for over-friendly voyeurs, I smiled at them and continued on. But when their shouts grew more plaintive I stopped at a safe distance, at which point a wizened old man sprinted up to hand me a bungee cord that had fallen from Fred’s bike.

As friendly as the people, and as beautiful the scenery on this forbidden shortcut, it was nevertheless a relief rejoining scary highway 8, since our butts had just about had it after 25 kilometers on a miserably bumpy road. The traffic was mysteriously much lighter today at least, but the surface was nowhere near as good as yesterday’s butt-candy. The remaining 20 kilometers to the Gujarat border were mostly downhill, twisting down an endless series of curves, yet not nearly as fast as they could have been due to the rough surface.

We had lunch at an RTDC (Rajasthan Tourist Development Corporation) place at the border hamlet of Ratanpur. A pair of Indians at the table next to us horrified us by guzzling down four one-liter bottles of beer in less than fifteen minutes. Gujarat, you see, is famous for being a fanatically dry state (folks attribute this to Mahatma Gandhi, a native son and fervent teetotaler). We only hoped that our boozing friends were headed in the opposite direction…

Our first hours in Gujarat were terrific cycling. The mostly quiet road gently descended through verdant hills, and a healthy tailwind pushed us along. My first impression of Gujarat was how green it looked compared to dusty brown Rajasthan. After an hour and a half of ultra-swift pedaling we stopped at the fanciest dhaba we’d ever seen –sparkling clean, with a vast array of goods for sale, an attractively landscaped lawn and Vadilal ice cream (a delicious Jain-made treat that would quickly become a BikeBrats staple).

When the green valleys and hills softened to an undulating plain, camel carts suddenly reappeared. We’d hardly seen any since Sawai Madhopur (India’s camel capital?) and I was overjoyed to see them again, since I associate them with everything I love about this country.

With the wind at our backs we felt strong enough to make it all the way to Ahmedabad, but it would soon be dark. At Himatnagar we looked around for acceptable accommodation, and when none was found we hastily decided to commandeer a Commander –a cheap Jeep-like substance of Indian manufacture. This was pretty easily arranged, though the masses of onlookers we attracted made it a bit trying on the nerves. Our driver quoted a reasonable price of 400 rupees to take us to a hotel in the center of town and we agreed without haggling.

We knew from experience that Commanders are the blight of the Indian highway network, and it was unsettling to see how they operate from the inside. Two assistants sat in back with the bikes, watching the heavy flow of traffic for holes to dart through and instructing the driver –pressed against the door for the best view—accordingly. It was a white-knuckle ride, to say the least; we held our breaths most of the way.

At a small crossroads we came to an abrupt stop. "Here Ahmedabad, Nehru Bridge," croaked our driver and his two minions, rather feebly. Dumbfounded by the lameness of their attempt to swindle us, I vowed not to tip them a paise and curtly instructed them to drive on. The formerly amicable feeling in the car (or so I had thought) soured. Ahmedabad was still 25 kilometers away. Once we began to penetrate the vast city it became clear that our bumpkin escorts hadn’t a clue as to where the Nehru Bridge was. They asked everyone in sight for directions, and without our assistance in the matter they’d probably never have found it.

When we pulled up in front of the hotel the driver and his pals pulled yet another stunt. He told us that the price was now 500 rupees (Ironic, since that was what I’d planned to tip him before his first attempt to deceive us), but we held firm at 400 rupees. Of course the commotion it stirred up attracted the entire hotel staff, plus half the surrounding neighborhood. In the end Fred had to place the 400 rupees on the ground since the Himatnagarians refused to accept it.

Princessing out for dinner at the Holiday Inn next door seemed an appropriate way to end the long day. We ordered Mughal and Jain dishes, all delicious and served with just the right amount of obsequiousness. A stroll around the neighborhood afterwards yielded the usual verdict: Fred thought Ahmedabad was a filth-smeared dump, while I found it charming, funky and steeped in mystery.

The next day we were tourists. We had been told that the Calico Museum of Textiles was not to be missed, so we headed there first thing for their morning tour. Quite an amazing place it was, too, housed in the magnificent residence and garden of a wealthy family of fabric dealers. Our guide (you can’t wander around on your own in this museum as you could very easily get lost) rushed us through various folk exhibits, describing different types of worship and pointing out details on perfectly reconstructed temples and houses –all integrated into the massive palace. There were precious bronze objects, ancient texts and maps and exquisitely detailed miniature paintings. Best of all, though, was the textiles portion of the museum, which is probably the best of its kind assembled anywhere. Most impressive was Shah Jahan’s ornately decorated hunting tent, hanging from the ceiling of a massive room housing countless other treasures. We saw costumes of kings and queens, ancient ikats from Indonesia, as well as batiks, shawls woven from precious metals and mind-bogglingly intricate tie-dyed and embroidery work from the tribal people in Kachchh (I swear that this is the way it’s spelled on my map), the westernmost part of Gujarat state.

Our plan had been to proceed directly from the museum to the day’s only screening of "Fire" in English. We’d been reading about the brouhaha over the film in the newspapers every day since arriving in India, usually on the front page. Treating the story of two married women who develop a lesbian relationship and leave their husbands, the movie is deemed "obscene" by the more conservative Hindu groups –most notably the Shiv Sena political party. All across India cinemas showing the film have been picketed or even burnt down in protest. We figured we had to see it, but missed our chance in Ahmedabad while we ooh’ed and ahh’ed over fabulous fabrics. Little did we know that we wouldn’t have another chance in India, since the film was ordered to be sent back to the censors the very next day.

The remainder of our day in A’bad was very busy. First stop was the Gujarat Tourist Bureau, where we tried to squeeze information out of an elderly ignoramus, followed by a first-rate lunch at the elegant Hotel Cama and a peek into the amazing textile-oriented gift shop downstairs. From here we proceeded to the train station to book train tickets, locking us into an itinerary for the next two weeks, then on to the best Internet café we’ve been to anywhere, called Random Access, in the obviously wealthy part of town across the river from where we were staying.
We made it back just in time for our rendezvous with Satya and his extended Jain family, the ones we’d met in Sawai Madhopur. They arrived late looking very elegant indeed, just back from a wedding. Satya’s perpetually smiling and radiant aunt (whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten) was wearing a gorgeous tie-dyed sari like the ones we’d seen earlier in the museum. Biren, Satya’s skinny, hyper-energetic uncle, told us that everyone was waiting for us back at his place, but he wanted to give us a little tour of Ahmedabad by car first.

It was terrifying, since Biren is perhaps the worst driver in all of India (no small claim). He swerved through the dense traffic as if oblivious to everything around him, placidly chatting all the while. Somehow we made it back to his family compound (across the river, of course), where we met up with all the same people we’d seen in Sawai Madhopur. We sat on a huge pillow-covered dais with male members of the family and looked at blurry photos of tigers. Biren also showed us pictures of Palitana –where he was delighted to learn we were heading—and told us that their whole family goes there in pilgrimage every year. In fact, we could stay at his cousin’s guest house there. After a while we all trundled into three or four cars and headed off into the night for ice cream. The place they took us was a riot, an Indian version of a strip mall lined with ice cream shops. Fifties-style carhops compete for business and bring the orders to people’s cars while the customers put all their energy into checking each other out, trying to figure out how they fit into the societal hierarchy. The ice cream was good, too. Satya scoped out some of the female patrons and claimed breathily that "women are the spice of life" –thus dispelling our suspicions that he might be family. We had hoped that he might provide us with entree into the Gujarat homo scene, as well as insights as to how upper-class Indian (and Jain) gays cope, but retired to our beds as clueless as ever.

Water pump near Dungarpur


Hi-Tech road crew

Peasant tourists at Lothal



Lothal's not-so-impressive ruins

5 December, Ahmedabad to Utelia, 103km (f)

Over four million folks, their cars, busses, autorickshaws, horse carts and other assorted modes of transportation inhabit Ahmedabad and I wasn’t looking forward to navigating out of that mess on bicycle. As it turned out I was pleasantly surprised. The route out of Gujarat’s biggest city was straightforward and simple. Aside from leaving with the customary lung-full-o-dust we collected no other misfortunes on the way to the well paved, broad shouldered and light trafficked highway.

Within a few kilometers a big tractor toting a trailer passed us. Normally I’d curse a noisy tractor traveling at roughly our speed just in front of us. Not this time: he was blocking the wind, setting an aggressive pace for us and, most importantly, forcing the traffic that approached from in front and behind to give us lots-o-room as they passed. For over twenty kilometers, setting our fastest pace in Asia so far, we clipped along behind the tractor without having to leave the road once to avoid an accident.

After some time we turned off the main highway and headed towards what was billed as a swank palace hotel and restaurant. On arrival we found a modest farmhouse in the center of a dirt-poor village. Within the farm compound a skinny waif who was apparently managing the hotel greeted us rather unenthusiastically. He led us to a quiet and large dining room. There were huge cartoon-ish paintings of some mini-nawab, likely the forefather of the owner of the hotel.

A lone Indian female traveling to see Lothal joined us at lunch. In elegant western garb she ate alone after dismissing her chauffeur. We engaged her in conversation and found that she was a high tech marketing consultant for IBM and Compaq. She’d taken off early from work and planned to spend the afternoon seeing Lothal.

After lunch we asked the anti-social waif to show us a room. It was modest, like the house, but came with an exorbitant price tag. He wanted nearly one hundred dollars for it and dinner. Finding this obscene we opted to go be tourists at the ancient city of Lothal and try our luck with the manager who’d return later that night. Unfortunately Utelia/Lothal is very remote and there would be no other lodging opportunities.

The road to Lothal from Utelia was one of the worst in India. Nearly impassible by bicycle, it left many cars stranded amongst the mortar-shell-hole sized potholes. Despite the obstacle-ridden road the archeological site was abuzz with visitors. Lothal was the part of the ancient Harappan civilization (centered in Pakistan’s Indus valley) and was an important trading outpost. Though we were some 30 kilometers inland this had once been a port. The archeologists had discovered a massive harbor that had been used to construct and maintain boats. In the ruins of the small city they discovered housewares, jewelry, games, and religious icons that were all on display in the simple museum.

Unlike in most countries a surprising number of peasant-fieldworkers visit tourist destinations in India. On this day several tractor loads of brightly dressed and heavily bangled Gujaratis crawled around the ruins along with three busloads of rather hyper kids. After we viewed the museum we were mobbed by the schoolchildren, who insisted that we sign their hands and pose for photographs until our faces were too tired to smile.

After we rid ourselves of the kids we went to photograph the peasants. They were very interested in our glasses, shoes, tattoos, jewelry and what was in our bags. One tried to exchange his ornate silver belt for Andy’s treasured necklace from a sadhu in Matura. Though the necklace was of little actual value, made of simple orange glass beads, he couldn’t part with it because of the spiritual value of the item.

We’d procrastinated long enough. It was time to go back to the hotel and try to negotiate some sort of a deal for lodgings. Now the owner/manager/prince was back and ready to talk turkey. He was more than aware of his bargaining power and our lack thereof, a situation he exploited to his advantage. We got precious few rupees knocked off the original quote. With the sun sinking towards the horizon, we were obliged to stay there or try to find a bus on to the next town. While discussing price with the odious micro-raja he invited us to tea (which he presented a bill for a few moments later). After agreeing to stay we retired to our room and scrubbed off the road dirt in preparation for dinner. Moments later, while I was showering, the parsimonious prince sent his scrawny henchman to the room to collect money from us. It was the only the second time in India we’d been treated with such mistrust. I told him to come back later. He waited outside the room knocking every five minutes until I paid.

After dressing I went outside into the courtyard to further interview our less-than-polite host. He told me of his countless riches, properties, horses, cars and other possessions, his desire to live in the United States and, most importantly, why he was so obsessed with getting our money up front. He explained that some French people had stayed for a week and skipped out under cover of dawn catching the first bus without paying their hotel bill. Frankly I found it hard to believe that this actually happened and expressed that it’d be hard for us to skip very far on bicycle.

The biggest surprise of the day was who was in the dining room with us that night. Nadine and Lilliane, the frogs from Dungarpur (and the Calico Museum and Hotel Cama in Ahmedabad), were seated as we entered. We were happy to see familiar faces and hoped that they’d be less drunk than the last time we saw them at dinner. Here in bone-dry Gujarat, they proved to be perfectly charming and fun dinner companions. My favorite part of the meal was when the nasty micro-raja joined us in the room. The frogs had exactly the same impression of him as we had. " Au secours!" (help!), Lilliane whispered quietly when the cheap old fartbag entered. Andy and I held back a cackle and greeted him reservedly. Horrified when he sat down next to us and began chatting with us. While he driveled we watched the buffet begin to be populated by the raja’s underlings. He lamented that he hated the French and all other foreigners who couldn’t speak English while we eyed the food hungrily. It was a scandalously small offering for what he was charging and we shamed him into bringing out more by eating everything in the hotplates. After stuffing ourselves we all retreated hastily from the dining room, avoiding any further contact with the agouti-king.

6 December, Utelia to Bhavnagar, 108km (a)

It took a prodigious amount of effort to suppress a huge groan this morning when our heinous host invited himself to sit down with us at the breakfast table. He came toting a thick book full of guests’ comments. I dove right for it, expecting to read a whole catalogue of complaints. But the comments were all glowing, as if describing another place. I was surprised, too, by the sheer number of guests received in this remote place. "Oh yes," our host explained, "my son travels often to France to promote this place; in fact, he’s there now." Apparently his son is a less loathsome human being, as most of the previous guests had effused about the warm welcome received. And then there were the ecstatic comments about the food! Had these other people ever eaten anywhere else in India? Didn’t they see how out of line the prices were? In my head, I composed a poison-pen entry into the heavy volume, but with the nasty nawab watching me intently and no coffee in my bloodstream I deferred and passed the book on to Fred, figuring he’d write something equally bitter. But he wimped out, understandably intimidated by the old man practically breathing down his neck, and wrote some bullshit about how tranquil the place was.

When Nadine and Liliane showed up, the book was passed to them with stern instructions to write in English, "because if you write in French or any other language I won’t understand it." Like us, our friends were thus intimidated into writing something blandly pleasant.

Bapu (as he insisted we called him; we guessed it means "butthead" in Gujarati) was waiting for us out in the hall when we got up to leave, literally blocking our way. "Two hundred fifty rupees" was all he said, demanding payment for the five bottles of (extortionally-priced) water we had consumed. Fred dug into our wallet, pulled out the exact sum and plunked the wad of bills into the odious man’s outstretched palm. We both felt anxious to leave the evil place and were soon on our bikes.

Stupidly, we followed Bapu’s advice on our route to Bhavnagar. The plan was to stop on the way at Velavadar National Park, famous for its huge blackbuck population. As instructed, we turned off the main highway onto a truly awful road, more potholes than asphalt. Everyone we have talked to the last few days has assured us that Gujarat has the best roads in India; obviously none of them have ever been on this one. After twelve taint-torturing kilometers we had joined another highway heading south with a wonderfully smooth surface. Of course it didn’t last. Right after our first dhaba stop of the day we had to traverse a long stretch of road in the process of being improved. It was so abysmal that I fell off my bike at one point, cutting up my knee pretty badly. It was slow going the remainder of the way to Bhavnagar, with only brief stints of smooth road. Most of it had been badly affected by one or more heavy monsoons. And the scenery was uniformly dull, just one monotonous scrubby swamp.

When we finally reached the turnoff to the national park we took one look at the road and decided to skip it. Why prolong our agony by twenty kilometers just to see some deer? A sign indicated that our goal for the day was still forty-some kilometers off and we wondered if we could even make that. Indeed, the last stretch of road into Bhavnagar was awful; by the time we finally reached the city limits we felt utterly spent. Luckily, finding decent lodgings was relatively easy and we were soon washed up and ready to explore the town.

I liked Bhavnagar immediately. The people were enthusiastic and gregarious, the streets were clean and uncrowded and the whole place felt aglow with prosperity and harmony. We headed to a hilltop temple to get a view of the town and ran into Nadine and Lilliane for the fifth time on the way to the top. Incredibly, this temple was also a meeting/cruising place for Bhavnagarian homos. Many of them flirted with in a circumspect manner but were too shy to initiate any conversation –understandable, since as outsiders we were pretty much the center of attention. So we sat there and watched an amazing sunset while checking out the funny little scene. Once the sky began to grow dark we jumped into an autorickshaw –the cleanest and fanciest we’ve ever seen in India— to scope out the town’s elegant palace/hotel, where our French friends were staying (mais bien-sur). We thought there might be a bar where we could have a drink, but duhhhh, this is Gujarat, drier than a vegan cookie; so after a quick perusal of the deserted premises (far far grander than the barn-palace at Utelia) we headed back to our place for a fantastic dinner. The restaurant was packed with well-to-do Indian families, testimony to Bhavnagar’s prosperity.

Afterwards I went out in search of water, crossing a pitch-dark park to do so. Apparently my novel complexion was discernible in the gloom; several people approached me and insisted they buy me a drink or a snack. While it’s sometimes flattering to be so automatically popular, more often I find myself wishing I were able to blend in more, nostalgic for the relative anonymity of places like Finland –a place almost unfathomably far from here.

Utelia's well and water-wagon



Nadine and Lilliane


Sunset cruising in Bhavnagar

Stairway to heaven: a few of Palitana's 3800 steps



Takin' the easy way down


Offerings at the Muslim shrine

7 December, Bhavnagar to Palitana, 58km (f)

This morning I awoke feeling a little ill and reeking of an Indian anti-bug preparation. I guess there had been a pest problem in the room and the managers had doused it liberally. My breakfast dosa was a religious experience. The crispy handkerchief sized crepe was full of everything delicious. It was to be a rather short riding day. The longest stretch of which seemed to be getting out of nasty smoggy Bhavnagar. Once we were off the main road the terrain rolled and was sometimes smooth. After a short time we were rolling into Palitana.

Riding amongst the thousands of pilgrims we went in search of the guesthouse our friends in Ahmedabad had recommended. When we finally found it we were instructed that it was only for families and that we didn’t qualify. Our search led us back to the other side of town to the GTDC hotel where we found a simple, cheap and comfortable room.

The main attraction of Palitana is the huge mountain that looms over it. For the last thousand years or so Indians have made their religious pilgrimage here to climb the 3800 steps and worship in the temple complex atop the peak. Many come for weeks at a time in order to climb the peak 108 times (a mystical number for both the Jains and the Hindus). Some of the fitter young folk race up the mount as many as four times in a day. As we climbed women sprinting up the steps passed us, sweating through their saris. Altogether different types of pilgrims come as well. These normally obese or aged Jains are carried up the mountain by either two or four porters, depending on their size and wealth. The cost is just over a dollar per porter for the hour-long journey. They come and are taken up the hill because they have taken a vow to visit Palitana every year for their entire lives. The porters help them keep that vow.

Atop the mount are over eight hundred shrines honoring Jain gods with special emphasis on Kali. The ornately carved temples cover the top of the mountain within a wall that protects them. We arrived at the complex by the back door, having opted to take the quieter staircase for the last part of the climb. In the corner of the complex is an odd Muslim shrine. It marks a burial place that has special healing powers. On the grave people leave votive tokens representing the body part with which they have trouble in the hopes that the spirit will bring them back to health. The place of worship feels Catholic rather than Muslim. The Muslims at the site invited us to tea and shared coconut with us before we headed off to the Jain temples.

We sneaked in the back door avoiding having to get a permit for our camera. It was odd: though we’d seen literally thousands on the steps on the way up the temple complex seemed empty. Where was everyone?

After over an hour of exploring we found we were being herded towards the door. The temples and mountain must be vacant at dark lest the gods be angered. Racing down the seemingly endless stairs we found ourselves to be ravenous. The antidote was to snack our way through: a dosa here, a samosa there. Now the throngs of worshippers were milling about the streets eating and shopping like us. As darkness set upon Palitana we came across a truck full of what looked like bread being unloaded into a storage room. When we asked what it was we were told they were loaves of raw sugar to be mixed with noodles and eaten for breakfast. A healthy chunk of the sugar was broken off and passed down to us to sample. It made a perfect desert.

Back at the hotel I’d promised a multi-gear-system demonstration for the hotel workers. A crowd of 12 looked on as I had the manager shift while the front desk clerk pedaled. They were fascinated by the difference in effort between gears and how the derailers worked. Even after I locked the bikes for the night the audience stood staring at the marvelous machines in utter awe. I wouldn’t be surprised if we found them still gawking there tomorrow.

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