Sunday, December 31, 2006

Watching Palaces and Chasing Asses

Diu, 23'066 km

First of all, HAPPY NEW YEAR to all of you who are reading this. Yeah, I've been lazy updating the blog - but good Internet Cafes are few and far between in the countyside. Incidently my (still) camera broke on the way out of Delhi, so I took only some pictures with my Video camera, which snaps decent pictures but I'll have to take it apart and see if I can fix it.

I've settled for Diu, an ex-Portuguese enclave to spend New Year's Eve. It's a quite a nice place, with a small town that still looks very Portuguese and sand beaches, on an island off the south coast of Gujarat. It's packed with Gujaratis coming here to party and get seriously drunk, but most foreigners end up in this backpacker guest house sharing an old church with a museum.. so I'm here sleeping on the roof of a catholic church with an incredible view on the sea, along with many other backpackers, sipping beer and smoking joints. Only in India you can find this.

Some time ago leaving Delhi I first had to hack my way through the crazy traffic on Haryana roads, until I hit Rajasthan and took some very nice little roads with very good tarmac. Generally, Rajasthan roads have been very good, even smaller ones, and with much less traffic, especially in the north west Thar desert.

I decided to bypass Jaipur, the big Rajasthan capital, and head west through the Shekhawatis to Bikaner and Jaisalmer, trying to avoid the touts of the shopkeepers. Arriving in Jaisalmer the first view on the majestic fort is amazing, even through the desert haze. It's an invitation to go and spend hours walking through the little lanes around the palace and other old buildings.

The weather was very foggy and windy, so I decided to skip the (very touristy) camel safari in the desert and head down to Jodhpur. I found a very friendly guest house that let me set up my tent on the roof and sleep there for free. The old city is painted all in blue, and it looks beautiful with the impressive fort overlooking it. It was well worth spending a couple days just hanging out in the fort and around.

Another stop was at the huge fort of Kumbhalgarh, bordered by a very well preserved 36km wall.. second in the world only to the Great Wall of China. By chance I came during a folkloric dance and singing festival, set at night under the illuminated fort. Very nice.

I had to decide whether to go for Udaipur or Mt. Abu, or both. The nice romantic city or the amazing Jains temples. Well, the Indians are on holiday between Christmas and New Year so it seemed Mt Abu would be overcrowded and not so much fun. Udaipur looked good and pretty much on the way so I headed there. Well, it may be a very romantic place to stay, but like Venice it also is a lot more enjoyable if you have big money and stay in a nice hotel. Half of the palace and the adjacent lake side island has been taken over by big palaces, and it's difficult to even walk there if you're not a resident. The guest houses in the old city generally don't have a good view on the lake (but they show "Octopussy" almost around the clock, so thanks to James Bond you can see nice shots of Lake Palace).

In turned out the Indian tourists were invading the place for Christmas as well, so I retreated and left for Gujarat, away from the tourist track. Indeed, the atmosphere is much more relaxed and quiet, and people who approach you just want to talk, they're not trying to bring you to their handicraft shop. Of course it's a bit difficult as they generally only speak Gujarati and maybe Hindi. Even the road signs are often only in Gujarati so it's a bit problematic at times.

Again I avoided the big city of Ahmedabad and took the secondary roads direction the Little Rann Sanctuary, stopping on the way at the beautiful Sun Temple in Modhera. Set in a nice garden it is a very well preserved 11th-century temple that sees very few tourists (and even less foreigners).

Gujarat is on the western tip of India, bordered by Pakistan in the north and the Arabian sea in the west and south. The Rann of Kutch is a very particular place, a very large completely flat desert area that is generally dry except during the monsoon when the whole area is flooded, partly by the rivers and partly by the sea. When the water retreats it leaves these flat salty plains where not much can grow, except on some higher grounds that remain islands during the monsoon.

The Little Rann is home to the rare asiatic Wild Ass, which looks sort of like a zebra without the stripes. A sanctuary has been set here to protect them, as well as the blue bucks and a big population of birds such as flamingoes, cranes and pelicans who spend the winter here coming from Europe or Siberia.

I spent a full day on a jeep safari, shared with a couple from Czech Republic who are big on wildlife photography. I also took my bike and for a half day had some fun riding around the animals, not something I was supposed to do I guess but then those guys have no natural predators, so a little exercise won't hurt them.

After a couple easy days it was time to find a place to spend New Year's Eve. Gujarat is not very good for this as they enforce a strict prohibition on alcohol, but the little island of Diu on the south coast is outside its control and you can find cheap booze everywhere. Time to get ready for the big party, so see you in 2007.


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