Heading west

WE SHOULD NEVER have booked to travel on the 945 am Gujarat State Road Transport Company’s (GSRTC) bus from Ahmedabad to Mandvi in Kutch. The distance between the two towns is about 390 kilometres. According to Google maps, the journey should take seven hours by car. Allowing for stops en-route, a bus should take no more than an hour longer. The 945 bus from Ahmedabad took eleven and a quarter hours, with no more than a total of an hour stoppng at various bus stations along the way. Why, you may wonder, did our bus take so long despite the fact that we encountered no traffic traffic congestion at all and we were not involved in any accidents.

The first three hours of the journey, our bus travelled through small towns in the great plain of Gujarat that were far from the direct and shortest route. Many of these places, such as Lakhatar and Surendranagar contain stretches of largely intact historic city walls. After visiting these places in what was effectively a huge detour, we rejoined the direct highway at Dhranghadra. We had travelled a little under 100 kilometres from Ahmedabad in three hours.

At Surendranagar, the driver and conductor left the bus and were replaced by a new crew. The new driver spent more time chatting to the conductor who was sitting to his left and behind him. Most of the time, the driver had his head turned away from the road to see the conductor. He would take frequent brief glances at the road ahead in between his lengthier glances at the conductor. Despite this seeming lack of concentration on the road, he drove well, something that cannot be said of many of the other road users. Some of the overtaking I observed was just short of suicidal.

For a while, we drove along the very good 6 lane highway barely making any stops to pick up or drop off passengers. We had a ten minute break near Halvad, just long enough to buy some snacks and to use the toilets.

Soon after re-joining the motorway, the bus, which was moving quite fast, was overtaken by a Royal Enfield motorcycle. It was being driven by a young man and a largish lady was sitting side saddle behind him. The cyclist was sounding his horn repeatedly, more than necessary, and the lady was smiling sweetly at our bus. I thought that she was just having fun, but as the bike passed the front of our bus, it swerved in front of it. The bus slowed down and stopped and the smiling lady climbed on board and purchased a ticket. She told us that she had seen our bus leaving from Halvad and chased after it unsuccessfully. The young man had offered to take her on his bike and then chase after the bus that he wanted to catch.

We crossed over the Surajbari river bridge, and entered the former kingdom of Kutch, now part of the State of Gujarat. For several kilometres we drove through an estuarine area with acres of saltpans punctuated by tall white pyramids of freshly harvested sea salt. This area is one of India’s most important salt producers.

The highway, from which, amazingly, we had not yet deviated, was heavily used by large trucks. The flat countryside was filled with industrial plants, some quite large with chimneys belching clouds of smoke which were stirred up into interesting shapes by the strong prevailing wind.

As the sun began sinking into the hazy (polluted?) sky on the western horizon, we pulled into Gandidham. This city, established just after 1947, is built on land donated by the Maharao of Kutch, the last ruler of the Princely State of Kutch. The city became home to many Sindhi Hindus who had fled during the Partition from nearby Sindh when it became incorporated into the newly formed Pakistan. Gandidham is not far from the port of Kandla, about which you can learn much more from my book “Travels through Gujarat, Daman and Diu” (published in India by pothi.com as “Gujarat Unwrapped”). I guessed that the heavy truck presence was because of the industrialisation of this part of Kutch and activities at Kandla.

It was at Kandla where we received information that made our hearts sink. The conductor told us that from Gandidham onwards, it was going to take us another three hours to reach Mandvi. Instead of taking a direct route, our bus had to visit numerous villages to drop off and pick up passengers. He explained that being a state run bus, this service is like a lifeline; it is almost the only way that people could travel between these places by public transport. We trundled through the darkness, stopping here and there. I felt sorry for the driver because many other road users travel along the unlit country roads either without lights or with only dim front lights switched on. Of course, cattle and other animals, who routinely share the road with human traffic, are completely without lighting.

All along our route, we saw animals on the road. Cattle and goats are routinely herded along or across roads of all sorts, even the high speed six lane highways. If my knowledge of ornithology was less rudimentary, I would have been able to describe the rich variety of birds that we saw along our route.

In the road lit up by the lights on our bus, I saw a dog which was lying dead at the side of the road. Another dog, maybe a companion of the dead one, was standing close by looking at it sadly or maybe disbelievingly. It was a tragic sight.

Some weeks earlier we were on a car in Hyderabad when I noticed that drivers were making sudden manoeuvres to avoid something lying in the middle of the road. It was a cat that had been knocked down. Lying on its side, its legs were moving frantically in the air as if it were trying to run away. This fleeting image of an animal in the throes of death affected me greatly. I can still see that poor creature in my mind’s eye.

Eventually, we crossed the River Rukmavati and drove along the riverside next to substantial remains of the impressive wall that used to surround the city of Mandvi. We disembarked at the almost deserted modern bus station. While we waited for the car that was going to collect us, a cow wandered past us investigating bits of rubbish on the floor, hoping to find something worth eating.

Though tiring and exceptionally lengthy, our bus journey through the flat countryside between Ahmedabad and Mandvi was far from dull. Our fellow passengers ranged from westernized Gujaratis in European style clothing to rustic looking folk: women wearing saris and salwar kameez, and men attired in very baggy trousers that resembled dhotis and turbans or headscarves. Mobile phones kept ringing and there were many loud conversations. Outside the bus, we saw many vignettes of small town and village life through the filthy windows of our trusty bus.

Next time we visit Kutch from Ahmedabad, we will follow the advice of our GSRTC bus conductor:
“Go by private bus”.

BUS TO MOUNT ABU

WE SPENT MUCH OF NEW YEAR’S 7 Its driver was a friend of our driver. They were pleased to meet and wanted to chat. The other driver suggested to ours that he drove alongside ours so that he could chat with our driver. This did not happen but I liked the idea. Locating which bus we were to travel on proved a bit hair raising because everyone we asked suggested a different part of the bus station from which our bus might depart.

Much of the first half of the bus journey involved travelling northwards through flat cultivated terrain liberally sprinkles with small factories and large villages. We had a ten minute stop at Himatnagar, a small busy city in northern Gujarat.

Beyond Idar, the road began climbing out of the plain. We had a 30 minute break in Ambaji, an important temple town on the Gujarat side of the border of Rajasthan, which we entered immediately after lraving the town.

After Ambaji, our road climbed steadily and with increasingly tight bends through a mountainous landscape with plenty of trees. I was glad we were on a bus rather than a smaller vehicle like a car or jeep because many of these were driven as if their drivers had a suicidal tendency.

After about seven hours we arrived at the ramshackle, seemingly abandoned bus station at Mount Abu. There have been settlements in this area since time immemorial. It is mentioned in ancient Hindu texts, the Puranas. In the 19th century is was the summer capital of the Rajputana State. Many of the Rajput royalty built summer palaces in Mount Abu.

Our hotel is close to the still used polo ground. A beautiful late Victorian polo pavilion built in 1894 overlooks the vast polo playing field and is now used as a library.

The temperature at Mount Abu, which is about 4000 feet above sea level, dropped dramatically as the sun set. The air became icy cold and we were forced to purchase warm jackets. These are sold at stalls at the so-called Nepali Market, which is also called the ‘Tibetan Market’. Nepali or Tibetan, whichever it is, is situated amongst trees to which are attached strings of colourful Buddhist prayer flags such as we have seen fluttering in Darjeeling and Sikkim.

We dined at a simple halal restaurant. My wife asked for a soup listed on the menu. At first, the restaurant owner did not seem so keen on serving it. After a while, he said reluctantly : “If you really want it, I suppose I will have to make it for you”

Pilots

I associate the word ‘pilot’ mainly with aeroplanes. Also, I think of small boats that help larger ones enter and leave ports. There is also, I believe, a creature called a ‘pilot fish’.

On arrival in Calcutta (now ‘Kolkata’) in West Bengal (India), I noticed that the local city buses have the word ‘pilot’ written on the doors that the bus drivers (i.e. pilots) use to enter their buses.

I am certain that I have never seen the word pilot used to describe a bus driver anywhere else I have visited.

Riding the bus without paying

 

There are some advantages to growing older. When our daughter turned 18 and was no longer eligible for reduced price tickets, we reached an age above which our cinema tickets were subject to discount. Our daughter was not amused.

 

freedom

 

If you are a London resident, you are eligible to receive a Freedom Pass after you pass a certain age over 60 years. This pass allows the holder to travel free of charge on London’s buses, trams, Underground trains, and national railway lines within certain limits. A London Freedom Pass holder can also use most local bus services anywhere within England (but not in Scotland). So, if you have the time and patience, it is possible to travel long distances in England free of charge by using a Freedom pass on local bus services.

‘K’, an old friend of mine, enjoyed exploring England with her Freedom Pass. On one of her earliest explorations, she set off from London to somewhere deep in the heart of Kent. She reached her destination eventually, having used a series of local buses without having to pay. The return journey was less successful.

K began her homeward trip and arrived at Tunbridge Wells at about five pm. When she made enquiries about local buses heading towards London, she received a diappointing answer. The last bus of the day that would taken her in her desired direction had already departed. The next would run on the following day. So, K was forced to return to London by train. Instead of paying nothing, she had to spend money on a costly one-way railway ticket. Her anticipated day of free travel ended up quite expensive. Since then, she has been more careful with her trip planning and not had a repeat of her unexpected travel expenses.

We make great use of the Freedom Pass when we are out of London. One of the best ‘bargains’ we have so far encountered was at Exeter in Devon. We parked our hired car at an Exeter ‘Park and Ride’ and boarded the bus which was to take us into the city. We were fully expecting to have to pay for a day’s parking and also the bus ride. When we showed our passes to the bus driver, he told us that there was nothing to pay.