A walled city and two caves

THE FAR WEST OF KUTCH (once an independent kingdom, now part of Gujarat) is very close to India’s border with Pakistan. We made an interesting day trip from Bhuj to this relatively wild and less inhabited part of Kutch.

The countryside west of Nakhatrana becomes hilly and dry with many rocky outcrops. It contains many large sites where lignite is excavated and a huge industrial plant that Gujarat Electricity use to convert it into electricity. The area is also liberally dotted with electricity generating wind turbines and pylons.

We left the main road and wound through undulating dry landscape to reach the Siyot Caves. These rock temples were carved into the cliffs to create Hindu temples sometime between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. They were later used by Buddhists and are amongst the 80 Buddhist cave temples in the Indus Valley noted by the 7th century Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang. Today, they are the abode of bats and there walls and pillars are covered with graffiti scratched into the red stone.

Our driver drove us through a sandy landscape with scrubby plants along dirt track with many potholes. We reached a small temple enclosure, where we stopped in order to visit another cave temple. This one, the Guneri Gufa Shiv Temple, was carved out of the living rock by a holy man, whose “spirit left his body about five years ago”, according to the present priest, a Sadhu from Hardwar. The temple, which is faintly reminiscent of the Amdavad ni Gufa (in Ahmedabad), contains a large Shiva lingam. After we had looked around, the picturesquely attired Sadhu prepared tea for us, which we drank from small metal bowls.

Lakhpat was our next stop. Surrounded by intact 18th century city walls, seven kilometres in length, this once thriving port used to be on an inlet of the Arabian Sea. Following an earthquake in 1819, the mouth of the River Indus changed its course and Lakhpat was no longer close to the sea. Rapidly, Lakhpat lost its importance and became depopulated. Today, the impressive city walls enclose a huge empty space with a few houses, a mosque, a few Hindu shrines, and a working Sikh Gurdwara. Staircases allow visitors to reach the ramparts. The view from the top of the walls is of an endless flat sandy area extending to the horizon. Before 1819, what is now the flat Rann of Kutch would have been a seascape with trading vessels.

One of the gates into Lakhpat, the Katha Nako, is still intact with one of its huge metal studded doors hanging on its hinges. The outer wall of the archway leading into the city has a sculpture of a guardian in European garb, such as can be seen at the Aina Mahal in Bhuj. The city wall and this sculpture are evidence of the influence of Ram Singh Malam, who lived for a decade in Holland in the mid 18th century.

Lakhpat is close to the Indian border with Pakistan. The road from the former port city to Narayan Sarovar runs parallel to the frontier. All along the road, there are signs to tracks leading to various Indian border patrol posts.

A causeway leads from the mainland to an island to the west of it. On one side of this is an inlet of the Arabian Sea and on the other there is a freshwater lake, the Narayan Sarovar. According to Hindu mythology this is one of the 5 Sacred Lakes and therefore an important pilgrimage sites.

We stopped near the Koteshwar Temple, which overlooks a pier that reaches out into the sea. We walked along the pier passing a small temple and an enclosure containing sculptures of various Hindu deities. Just over two thirds of the way along the pier there is a barrier beyond which members of the public are not allowed. At this barrier there is a Border Force sign and a smaller one on which is written: “Fishermen frisking point”. Beyond the barrier I saw small buildings in which soldiers were sitting. Several pairs of soldiers’ green trousers were hanging out to dry on a washing line between two small huts. A fleet of small fishing vessels were moored near the part of the pier beyond the barrier. As the tide was out, they rested on the shiny mudflats that glistened in the afternoon sun.

I saw several long legged birds, not flamingos, searching for food out on the damp mudflats. Near to the pier there were lots of amphibians, rather like fat newts, wriggling and scuttling about in the film of water covering the mud.

A short way from Koteshwar is the temple compound at Narayan Sarovar. Surrounded by high castle walls, this walled enclosure contains two large mandirs. A small gate leads to a tiny jetty projecting out over the freshwater lake on which we spotted a moorhen swimming. Some steps led from the outside of the temple compound’s enclosing wall into the lake to allow people to bathe. We left Narayan Sarovar, pleased that we had made the long journey to reach this beautiful, peaceful spot.

We made a brief stop at the popular pilgrimage place Mata no Madh, home of the Ashapura Temple that was first established in the 14th century AD, but completely rebuilt after the 1819 earthquake.

Back in Bhuj, we ate dinner at Noorani, a restaurant that serves good non-veg food. Many of the servers are young men. Out of the blue one of them asked my Indian wife, who speaks fluent Gujarati, whether she was Japanese. We were taken aback; she has no features that make her look Japanese. I had noticed that a couple of Japanese women had occupied a table in another section of the restaurant and wondered whether seeing us, a European with a woman who was clearly not a local, made the boy think that we were as ‘exotic’ as the two Japanese ladies.

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”

Familiarity does not always breed contempt

FAMILIARITY BREEDS … CONTENTMENT. We have just landed in Ahmedabad. It is our third visit to this city in Gujarat within less than two years. We received a warm welcome from the staff at the small hotel where we have stayed twice before.

After settling into our room, we ate a good meal of Mughlai food at the Food Inn, which is opposite the 16th century Sidi Sayeed Mosque. Then, we travelled to the Gita Mandir bus station, where a very helpful booking clerk arranged tickets for various intercity trips we are planning to make soon.

The noisy, bustling traffic in Ahmedabad is typical of the city’s general feeling of vibrancy and exciting vitality. So bad was the congestion on the roads that our autorickshaw driver suggested that we abandoned our plans to visit the Jumma Masjid near the Manek Chowk. He explained that being the 30th of December, everyone was in a holiday mood and out on the streets spending money.

We disembarked at Khwaja Bazaar, a frenetic market place between the three arched Teen Darwaza and the Badra Fort, where the early rulers of Ahmedabad had their headquarters. We strolled along a street leading away from the market, admiring occasional old looking buildings along it. I imagine that the oldest of these is about a hundred or so years old.

Eventually, we reached a post office just across the road from an ageing Parsi ‘dharamshala’. Apart from a vigilant watchman, who looked at us suspiciously, the place looked rather dead. We took tea at a pavement stall. Typical of the kindness of people in this city, the ‘chaiwallah’ specially prepared tea without sugar for us instead of the very sweet beverage that is usually served. We sat on a bench, sipping tea and watching the world go by. It felt good to be back in Ahmedabad, a city, where kite flying is a popular pursuit. A city that is becoming familiar to us and makes us feel content.

First published on http://www.gujarat-travels.com

A FEW MOMENTS IN NEPAL

THERE IS A SMALL BUDDHIST TEMPLE (a ‘Gumba’) next to our homestay in Darjeeling. It was built by the grandfather of our host. When I took a look at it this morning, our host’s aunt was walking around it clockwise, chanting and fingering a bead necklace, rather like a rosary. After she had been around the square gumba several times, she opened it up to reveal an elaborately decorated effigy of Buddha.

Moni, our driver of Nepali origin, collected us and drove along a picturesque road to Ghoom, whose railway station at just over 7400 feet is the highest in India.

A narrow rutted lane led through the centre of Ghoom up to the Yiga Choeling Buddhist monastery, which, having been built in 1850, is the oldest in the area. The interior of the inner sanctum contained a large seated Buddha and many smaller effigies of him. The sanctum was beautifully decorated with wall paintings. Butter lamps were burning. There were glass fronted cupboards containing numerous bundles of strips of paper with scriptural texts in Tibetan script. Words are inadequate to describe the beauty of this Buddhist equivalent of a chapel.

Offerings had been placed in front of the various effigies of Buddha. These included banknotes, packets of biscuits, fruit, and a bottle of Pepsi Cola.

A part of the monastery was a meditation room dedicated to the memory of Woody Strong (1914-2000), an American lover and helper of Nepal, whose papers about Nepal are stored in the Archives of Purdue University. When diagnosed with inoperable cancer at the age of 77, he visited Nepal where a Buddhist priest told him that he would be healed. Miraculously, the tumour disappeared.

We drove from Ghoom along narrow, winding mountain roads to a recreation area called Jore Pokhri. On the way there and later on, we passed through small woods of trees with tall straight trunks topped with leaf bearing branches. These trees, a type of conifer, are known as ‘dhupi’ (in Nepali language) and are very valuable. Their value lies in an oil that can be extracted from its timber.

We stopped at Simana Viewpoint near to a small tourist market housed in corrugate iron shacks overlooking a steep drop into a deep valley. Where we were standing, at Simana, was only a few feet from the border between West Bengal and Nepal. A village with a name beginning with M lay on the opposite slope of the valley in Nepal.

We continued to drive close to the border until we reached the Indian frontier crossing post at Pashupathi Market. Moni parked the car and we went up to the immigration hut to show our British passports and our Indian residence permits (OCI) to two ladies sitting behind a desk with a large ledger.

Our documents were passed between numerous plainclothes agents and men in uniforms whilst a lot of heated discussion took place between all concerned. After a few minutes, more officials arrived and joined the conversation, the outcome of which was that we were petmitted to proceed into Nepal, which neither of us had ever visited.

We walked into Nepal past a small Nepali police or army barracks along a winding street lined with decrepit shacks an occasional colourfully decorated more substantial buildings. After about 150 yards, we turned round and walked back towards India.

About 50 yards away from the Indian frontier post, while we were still in Nepal, we heard drums. We looked back and saw a procession of people in colourful Nepali costumes approaching us. The march filled the whole width of the road and occasionally moved aside to allow cars and numerous taxi vans to pass. We learnt that the procession was something to celebrate tourism. As it was a Saturday, there were plenty of Indian tourists paying a brief visit to Nepal.

While I, the only European in sight, was taking photographs, a man in colourful garb approached me and shook my hand before inviting me to join the joyful procession. Then, he placed a garland of yellow flowers around my neck.

We left Nepal and Moni drove us back to Darjeeling, a journey of just over an hour. The road ascended and descended a series of hills. We drove through occasional clouds, that enshrouded the road in thick fog. We emerged from the clouds onto bright sunlight before encountering the next patch of cloud.

We ate a good lunch at Glenary’s restaurant, an establishment founded in about 1910 and housed in a picturesque colonial era building.

Before returning to our homestay, we heard the sound of drums and bagpipes. The Darjeeling Police Band was giving a spirited concert of Scottish tunes on an open air bandstand overlooking The Mall. The pipers swayed from side to side as they puffed away on their bagpipes. I imagine that long ago when Darjeeling was a recreational resort for the British imperialists, it was likely that a band used to play for visitors promenading on The Mall as the sun set on Saturday afternoons.
Thus ended a wonderful day during which we saw many exciting things, superb scenery, and set foot in another country, Nepal, for a few moments.

DESTINATION SIKKIM

When I was in my teens, I found an old military survey map, paper glued on a canvas backing. It covered Darjeeling and neighbouring Sikkim. It intrigued me with its interesting contour lines and the nature of the landscape it encoded. Five decades have passed since my curiosity about Sikkim began. Today, what I had wondered about so long became reality.

Our host in Darjeeling drove us to the shared taxi stand near Chowk Bazaar. We paid for two seats to Gangtok and were led to a parking area filled with Tata and other makes of jeep. We were told that our Tata jeep would only depart when another 8 passengers were found. Soon a young Bangladeshi couple joined us. We waited and no more people turned up. Eventually, the Nepalese driver, Deepen, appeared. He told us that if we were happy to pay a modest supplement, the four of us could have the jeep to ourselves and, more importantly, depart immediately. We and the Bangladeshi couple agreed and we set off.

At first we drove along the Hill Cart Road, following the Toy Train tracks to beyond Ghoom, where we turned on to the road to Sikkim.

Most of the four hour journey is downhill along an often steep winding road with many hairpin bends, as Gangtok is at a far lower altitude than Darjeeling. We saw many beautiful flowers and ferns with huge leaves growing by the road as well as small forests of trees with very tall trunks. Occasional sloping tea gardens punctuated the luxuriantly verdant landscape. Many stretches of the road through the part of West Bengal through which we were driving are surfaced with tarmac from which numerous small hard stones project to make them safer when wet. I did not notice this type of road surface after we entered Sikkim.

For quite a distance, from Melli to well beyond the Sikkimese border town of Rangpo, we drove through the beautiful valley of the River Teesta that flows down from India into Bangladesh. The clear turquoise waters flow between wide white sandy beaches. From Melli to Rangpo we drove on the West Bengal bank of the river, looking across at Sikkim on the opposite bank.

After passing under a decorative arch with the words “Welcome to Sikkim”, we entered Rangpo and parked near to the visitors’ registration office. There, we showed our permit that we had obtained at Sikkim House in Calcutta and our passports. All three documents were stamped and their details entered by hand in a large book.

We continued our journey through a part of Sikkim in which the scenery was less spectacular than between Darjeeling and Rangpo. Also, the architecture of most buildings we saw lacked in aesthetic merit. Many of them are several storeys high.

Our road left the Teesta valley and began winding upwards through unattractive small towns in the environs of Gangtok city. As we approached the latter, the traffic became heavier. Most of the buildings we passed after entering Gangtok have at least 5 storeys and do not look particularly old. If Gangtok were on flat ground, the place would look nondescript. However, because the city clings to steeply rising hillsides, the vistas resulting from the piling of rows of buildings one above another are picturesque and impressive.

Some of the places we drove through were designated “ODF Village”. At first, I was puzzled by this. Then at one place, I saw the words “Open Defecation Free”. This means that emptying bowels in places other than toilets is forbidden.

The shared taxi stand in the centre of Gangtok looks like an ill-maintained multi storey carpark. We drove into an upper storey which was crammed full of jeeps. Some of them, including ours, shuffled back and forth like pieces in a badly made rubik’s cube in order to access a parking space. A lot of shouting accompanied these difficult manoeuvres.

Our drive unloaded our bag. He had driven magnificently with great skill and care, sometimes with his mobile phone in one hand. When we boarded, I had tried to put on a seat belt. He and the local taxi drivers we used on our first day in Gangtok told me that there was no need to use safely belts. It seemed to me that using a seat belt suggests to the drivers that I am not confident that they are going to drive well.

A local taxi delivered us to our hotel. Soon after this, we took another one to Lal Bazaars in central Gangtok. There, we ate lunch in the first floor Potala Restaurant. Some of the tables on one side of this unpretentious eater, were in compartments with curtains that could be closed to provide a degree of privacy. The steamed pork momos I ate were delicious. They are like Chinese dumplings but larger and with thicker doughy coverings, more like polish piroschki. Beneath the restaurant and under a metal roof, there is a long line of shoe polishers and shoe repairers, all sitting on the floor and very busy.

After eating, we climbed a long staircase with many landings. This is lined with all kinds of shops except for food sellers. The staircase leads to MG Marg, a wide almost level pedestrianised shopping street lined with many upmarket shops and a variety of cafés and restaurants. Many people were milling about, looking at shops or just enjoying themselves. Although not nearly as picturesque as the Stradun in Dubrovnik or the Pedonalja in Albania’s Berat and Shkodër, it serves the same purpose: a place to promenade.

After sunset, we returned to our hotel to await dinner. I am pleased that I am fulfilling my long held wish to visit Sikkim, but my first impression of Gangtok is that it is not nearly as attractive as Darjeeling. Despite that, it is beginning to grow on me.

Departure angst

Take off_240

 

Ever since I can remember, I have always enjoyed travelling.

Yet, as long as I can recall, I have always experienced  nervousness for a few days before my departure. When I was a child and even in my twenties, I used to feel positively nauseous during the last few hours before setting off. Nowadays, I still feel anxious a few days before leaving on a trip, but I no longer have that sensation of nausea.

The cause of my anxiety is probably a mixture of concern that all will go according to plan and excitement at the prospect of travelling and new experiences.

Whatever the reason for my pre-travel ‘neurosis’, the problem evaporates once I set off on my travels.

Am I alone in this needless worry before departure, or do others feel the same way?

A suitcase of memories

Memories of childhood. Here is the introduction to a travel book, “CHARLIE CHAPLIN WAVED TO ME”, which I published several years ago:

charlie

The attic of my parents’ house in north London contained a number of old Revelation suitcases. These were plastered with ageing colourful paper stickers bearing the names of shipping lines and also of places such as: Cape Town, Southampton, Harwich, New York, Montreal, and Rotterdam. Had they been animate and able to speak, what tales they would have been able to tell!

If, as a child, I had become a suitcase, I too would have been covered with an exotic assortment of stickers including some of those mentioned above. But, I did not become a piece of baggage, and the stickers that I carry are not made of paper. Instead, they are memories stuck in various compartments of my brain. Unlike the inanimate objects in the attic in the eaves of our house, I am able to speak: to divulge my impressions of the places that I visited in my childhood; to describe the remarkable people I met in those places; and to reveal the unusual experiences that resulted from travelling with my learned father and my talented mother.

This book contains my memories of the holidays and trips that I took with my parents, mostly during the first eighteen years of my life. They are worth relating because they differed markedly from the kinds of holidays that most people took during the 1960s and 1970s. Rather than exposing their children to the sun on the beach, my parents preferred to expose my sister and me to cultural experiences that, they hoped, would benefit us in the future. This was due to my father’s great interest in the history of art, which resulted from my mother being an artist. Whereas now I appreciate what they did for me then, I did not always do so at the time.

Please join me now as I examine the stickers in my memory – the souvenirs of many years gone past. Let them reveal to you how interesting school holidays can be even if they only include the rarest of glimpses of the sea and an almost total absence of ‘child-friendly’ activities.

These memories of my childhood travels are illustrated with photographs, all of which were taken by me or with one of my own cameras unless otherwise stated. I was given my first simple camera when I was about 6 or 7 years old. It was not given to me by my parents, who never took photographs, but by my uncle Sven who was a keen photographer. His grandfather had been a pioneer of professional photography, as I will describe below. I will begin my narrative by choosing a label that could have been pasted on to my suitcase of reminiscences during the late 1950s or any time in the 1960s. It bears the name “Soho”. I have chosen it amongst all of the others because it provides a good introduction to my mother, who affected so much of what we did as a family and what will be related in this book.

 

CHARLIE CHAPLIN WAVED TO ME

(ISBN: 9781291845051)

is available at:

Amazon, bookdepository.com, lulu.com , and on Kindle

A country that exists no more

OHR 78 OHRID Sunsetting over Albania

 

The picture depicts the sun setting over Albania as viewed from the Yugoslav shore of Lake Ohrid. When I took the picture, I was standing in Yugoslavia. Now the sun has set forever over Yugoslavia: that country exists no more. What made me interested in Yugoslavia and the Balkans? Here is my reply.

 

Hergé, the Belgian creator of the cartoon character Tintin, must be held responsible for my fascination with the Balkans. From the age of 7, when my father first presented me with one of his books, I became fascinated by the drawings of Syldavia and Borduria in some of the albums. These were two imaginary countries that the Belgian cartoonist invented to depict what he had seen during his visits to the Balkans. They attracted me than all of the other exotic settings of Tintin’s adventures.

My parents were fundamentally opposed to any totalitarian regime, be it right or left wing. They refused to venture behind the so-called Iron Curtain. Furthermore, they were even reluctant to buy anything made there on the basis that any purchase would give financial support to a regime that opposed the capitalist way of life. Their avoidance of countries, which were under the control of communists, and my fascination by Hergé’s cartoon drawings of south-eastern Europe made me yearn to visit them. As soon as I was old enough to travel alone, I gave in to my yearning.

I chose to visit Yugoslavia first for two reasons. First of all, it seemed more accessible than its neighbours; visas were not required and it appeared to have a less oppressive regime than some of the other Balkan countries. Secondly, I was already becoming fascinated by its mysterious neighbour, the tiny hermetically sealed country of Albania. I believed that by visiting certain areas in Yugoslavia I would manage to catch close-up glimpses of this almost completely impenetrable place.

My early visits to Yugoslavia, which commenced in the late 1960s, were made on my own or with other visitors to the country. These were fascinating enough to make me want to see more, but differed little from simple tourism.  Soon, I began meeting Yugoslavs. Many of them, especially in Belgrade and Sarajevo, became good friends. My visits to their country began to assume more of a social nature than simply touristic. I believe that as the years passed and I made ever more visits, I began to experience the country more profoundly, and with far greater affection, than the average tourist. My book “SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ” contains a trail of memories of the experiences I enjoyed whilst visiting a country that no longer exists.

 

“SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ”

is available as a paperback: HERE and on Amazon Kindle