Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Updates from Jodhpur

Udaipur to Kumbhalgarh

Little more than 24 hours ago, with energies waning, we wondered about the wisdom of riding any further, as the road seemed to increase in elevation at each twist and turn, and there seemed to be no end to the short, very steep hills. Having made the earlier decision not to stop for lunch in Rajsamand at around 11 a.m., and eating opportunities virtually nil, it was becoming obvious that we were hitting the proverbial wall, a combination of challenging riding and the lack of caloric input. But by two p.m having covered 20kms of easy riding on a two lane road with even a shoulder, the last 20 kms was a single lane road which was fine for two motorcycles passing, but large trucks, carrying massive cubes of marble, to be sliced and polished closer to town, required the entire road surface, which meant getting off onto the gravel shoulders in a hurry.

Just as we were nearing our limits, and having no plan B, since the traffic dwindled to an occasional car or motorcycle, and no sign of habitation in what is essentially a rocky desert, with flashes of green along dry riverbeds, as if a mirage, a small cross-roads stop with a couple of vendors was exactly what we needed. Freshly made fragrant chai, served in tiny glasses and dry biscuits were sufficient to allow us to revive and continue to balance of the journey of some 20kms which as good fortune would have it was mostly down hill. We chatted to the locals and photographed women clad in an array of brightly coloured saris, men in intriguing turbans with curled and twirled moustaches and headed towards our destination.

Perhaps it was this sense of euphoria that influenced me to stay at the first hotel we came across, costing a small fortune compared to our usual expenditures on a room, or a large one in local terms, but when you have expanded nearly all your energies, the comforts of an international class, brand new resort, with rooms carved into the hills, with a cascading infinity pool and a commanding view of the hills below, with a small army of staff to carry bags to the room, and a manager who gave us a very generous discount on learning about my aspirations to organize bicycle tours, is as close to perfection as one can aspire.

Our destinations, the fort of Kumbhalgarh is only four kms from where we are staying, and we decided to spend the day here and enjoy two nights in luxury which gave us nearly a half day to explore the fort itself. Even from the distance, the long winding walls of the fort are evident, and they stretch a distance of 36 kms which apparently is the second longest fortification after the Great Wall of China. The first close view of the fortification can only be described as WOW, fantastic and breathtaking. Situated on a hill at about 3300 feet above sea level, constructed in the 15th century, its like something surreal, and might be a creation of Walt Disney Studios. The walls and ramparts cover the hill and turrets like giant chess pieces shaped like rooks, (no wonder chess was invented in India), against the brilliant blue skies is truly magical. On entering the main gate, it becomes clear that this is a massive settlement, with temples and a series of fortifications within, with spiraling walls and a series of massive gates designed to withstand the forces of elephants, leads one to the top where the royal quarters have the proverbial breathtaking view.

I write about the last day since its freshest in memory but each day is filled with the wonders of the sights and people of India, one as uniquely memorable as the other.

In Udaipur, we decided to walk to Saheliyon-Ki-Bari, an ornamental garden, which one could find in Versailles, built in 1710 for 48 women who were part of the retinue of a princess. This oasis in the hustle and bustle with its flowing fountains is one that was well appreciated.

From the gardens, a rickshaw took us to Ahar, where a security guard opened the entrance to an earily quiet cemetery, at least there were no signs of anyone else, especially tourists, where for the last 350 years, all of the maharajas and princess were cremated, and their lives, commemorated, according to their status, in 250 cenotaphs each an elegant testimony to the person who's life its designed to celebrate. Each is covered with a large white dome, (with a couple of exceptions where the estae ran out of money to complete the monument) supported on intricately carved columns, and they range in size from a one story building like a large a frame to multi-story complexes like mini Acropoli, all densely built against each other. Not since Bagan, Burma, have there been so many monuments in one place, albeit, Ahar is much smaller in scale and the monuments very closely packed, but its impact is equally moving.. Just as were were nearing our solitary walk amongst the monuments, a young man appeared, who as it turns out is the fifth generation descendant of the person who is responsible for the cremations, and he not only gave us a detailed description of the death ceremony, but took time to show us some of the details of each cenotaph, and the history of some of the more significant ones, the largest being for the maharajah who died in 1620.

The road out of Udaipur was eventful only to the extent that the traffic was manageable, and the for a distance of about 20kms it seemed as if was lined solidly, on both sides, by places selling and/or fabricating marble of various colours, ranging from white, black, greens, pinks and browns. The prevalence of marble, and one can only assume that its inexpensive explains why marble seems to be a common construction material on floors, tables, walls even in simple retail kiosks and in the places where we stay.

Eklingji is a temple complex of 108 small shrines, which was started in 734, but the extant part is from the mid 15th century. Its a walled mini-complex of worship and education, each shrine uniquely carved and of various shape and size. As is the custom at each temple, offerings of freshly woven garlands of flower are sold by women at the entrance for the equivalent of about 5 cents and are given as offerings.
I could not help but to smile as I noticed that the offering were collected, and they were discreetly handed to a person through a small opening in an elaborately carved wall made of solid silver, to be rushed to the front of the temple. Clearly, conservation through recycling has a long history.

In Nathdwara, which barely deserved mention in Lonely Planet, we discovered a very vibrant spread out community that draws thousands of pilgrims to its 17th century temple, which is open only for a half hour a few times a day, and the anxious supplicants wait patiently at the entrance, to rush in when open, the crushing sea of humanity is not unlike the pictures of crowds emerging from crowded subway stations in major cities. The chanting and singing is as intense as the desire to enter this place of worship. This temple being off the tourist path, is surrounded by a maze of narrow streets with merchants offering colourful momentos to the locals and blissfully ignoring foreigners like us. While wondering through the narrow streets, a wedding procession lead by a clarinet playing pied piper took us to a colourful ceremony,

In Rajsamand, we enjoyed a similar temple to Nathdwara, as well as the tranquil lake which resulted from a damn being erected by one of the local rulers. The object of worship is a black Krishna image which is housed in the temple built in 1669. The priests treat the black Krishna like a beloved child – bathing it, feeding it, dressing it and waking it from its siesta at 3:30 which is the busiest time to visit.

Tomorrow we head towards the lowland town of Ranakpur, and whatever surprises that lie ahead.

Namaste, which is a common respectful greeting here. As is 'ta ta', which dawned on me is also the name of TATA one of the largest industrial enterprises in India, which I just read now earns 65% of its revenues outside of the country.

The magic and mystery tour continues.

Love and Peace

Kumbhalgarh to Ranakpur

Two nights in the comforts of a luxury hotel, and the benefit of an immense buffet breakfast, the ultimate boon to cyclists, did not seem to be sufficient prelude to tackle the hills as we left in the morning, and in fact it appeared that the hills were getting steeper and longer, not an uplifting way to start the day.

It also did not help that both of us have been fighting minor ailments. Within a week of arrival in Mumbai, I developed a sinus infection, which each day I had hoped, with the help of antihistamines would abate, but with the constant in and out of air-conditioned buildings and buses, the dust and fumes along the road, seems to have gotten progressively worse. Now that we have been in the clean mountain air for a couple of days, I am hoping that I will start to feel better, since I don't need any help of drugs at the end of the day to fall asleep. Alison, has also developed a sore throat and some congestion, but is starting to feel better.

After about 20kms mostly climbing, and arriving at a town not on our maps, it became clear that we have reached a peak, and the road for the next 25kms was like a tightly wound coil with twists and turns, all heading down hill. It was early afternoon when we reached our destination, the famous Jain Temple, called Chaumukha Mandir, built in 1439. On arrival, tired and grimy after a challenging day of riding, we were told that the temple is only open between noon and 5 pm, so with rented lime green pants to cover our legs, we entered the temple to once again be awestruck by magnificence. At the risk of being repetitive, once again the adjectives were insufficient to describe the effect of the temple, built entirely of milk-white marble and a series of soaring domes supported by 1,444 columns, non of which is alike had on us. Each pillar is intricately carved with various human and animal shapes and themes the totality of the effect of which is like any of the major cathedrals of Europe, except that this edifice is older and much more compact and ornate, without the feeling of being kitsch. There are also idols, brass bells and drums and the cool serenity and the simplicity of the structure is truly captivating.

The second,much smaller temple in the complex was equally interesting and provided an appealing backdrop to the main temple. As the day was coming to an end, with sunset around 6 pm, and dark descending quite precipitously, we began a search for the night's accommodation. The first place while very near the temple which I already decided needed a second visit, was too institutional in feel, the second, while highly recommended by Lonely Planet seemed disjointed, and the third, set in a lovely garden with a central eating area looked inviting even from the road. Ours is a huge room with white granite floor framed in emerald greens and the walls painted with elephants and some local scenery. At one fifth of the price of our previous night's stay, its not only appealing but highly affordable. The service once again was impeccable, with four young men competing to carry our gear and one insisting on riding one of the bikes up to our room, which overlooks a small terrace and abuts the garden.

As we are in a valley the vegetation is more abundant and families of monkeys are all around, as are countless birds and parrots of various colours and shapes and to our surprise, numerous peacocks with full plumage. The main road is covered with a canopy of eucalyptus trees and of course there are the ever present cows, bulls and and sunset, herds of them and goats are shepherded home. Altogether a very idyllic setting and we spent the day riding to the nearest settlement and visiting the temple in the morning and evening light. The night sky is brilliant with stars and a skinny mood, with no nearby city lights to dull their effect.

The temperature during the day is in the low 30's but as yet does not feel that hot, since there is a cooling wind, a lingering effect of the cool mornings, which my thermometer indicated was about 12 degrees. As such, its ideal sleeping temperature, with no cooling of a fan or air conditioning required.

Tomorrow we head towards a town called Pali, not on the tourist circuit, but with some input from a very enthusiastic, warm, gracious local businessman who not only drew roads that are not on our map, but suggested places to stay, not only enroute, but in Judpur in a hotel owned by his uncle we are well prepared for our journey over the next few days. In the true spirit of tribal hospitality, he gave us his cell number and urged us to call if we needed any help during our stay and to visit him and family in a few days time when he expects to be home. He also gave us a written introduction to his brother, who is the Deputy Inspector General of Police, of a nearby city, which reads “Mr. Andrew is known to me personally. If they happen to have any need or are in any difficulty, please do the needful....”

Jodphur 1

If there is one overriding impression of India, is that its a constant of contrasts and one can never anticipate how events my change, almost instantly. Perhaps it all began when we were briefed by a Canadian trade official, who described India in similar terms, including the slums that are very much evident in Mumbai, as being pretty bad on the outside, but that they are quite nice on the inside. This statement might be true, but I suspect that this official was never inside the “home” of a slumpdweller, and since I have only cycled past them, its possible that the inside of dwellings made of scrap pieces of metal sheeting, plastic tarps, or cardboard boxes have a simply more attractive on the inside, but not having personally looked at these from the inside, I cannot attest to their state, but can make an educated guess.

We were also told by a number of people, that the government build houses to relocate the slum dwellers, but that the people who lived in the slums, move to the new housing and continue to rent out their slum dwellings. Its also told that some slum dwellers are simply awaiting to be bought out by developers who are about to build gleaming high-rise offices or condos and that some slum dwellers, or the mafia organizers, are paid as much as $300,000 to move and permit such new construction. I can well imagine that some or at least a few have been paid such large sums, but given that 70% of the people in Mumbai live in slums, it would make them incredibly wealthy if all their dwellings were worth such a large sum. So, after a while as a traveler one becomes accustomed to seeing gleaming new buildings next to paper shacks, shinny new cars with chauffeurs in the midst of shoeless pedestrians, modern factories with high security fences and proclaiming the latest ISO standards in the midst of arid agricultural tracts with a farming implement being pulled by hand or an oxen.

Yesterday, we were within about 20 kms of Jodhpur when I earlier described seeing a sign to fort about 9 kms off the main highway. What was not said is that the highway in places had an endless stream of trucks and buses each trying its hardest to pass the other, and relying on the request on their backs to “honk OK” or “please honk” etc. The constant occupation of both lanes of the highway means that as a cyclist, the prudent thing is to get off onto the soft shoulder to avoid the fate of roadkill. After a while, and with constant attention, the skills of avoiding passing traffic coming directly at you, becomes routine and acceptable, and all in good spirits, since each passing vehicle, in both direction gives a celebratory wave, flicked of the headlight and/or smile, wave of the hand and/or a loud blast of its horn as it passes by, as if we have just been inducted into their realm of surviving road warriors.

The contrast that I am pointing to is not so much the expectations of riding in my country, with its own hazards of the road, where cars travel at much higher speeds and cyclists are usually not acknowledged any way, but the side road leading from the main road. This was a one lane affair, with virtually no vehicular traffic at all and the hazards to contend with were herds of cattle, goats and the occasional stray cow, dog or peacock that decides to checkout the foreigner cyclists. The peace and serenity of riding in silence, with people in the fields waving, saying hello is like entering a quiet sanctuary from a battlefield. The riding is effortless and arriving yesterday at the restored fort, converted to a fine hotel just added to the feeling serenity.

Jodhpur, famed for its fortification, that dominates the entire town, built into and on top of its hill in the 1500s, is probably the most chaotic and polluted place on the planet that I have had the displeasure of experiencing. It did not help that arriving around noon, with the blazing sun, checking out the international tourist bureau at the train station that had no useful or otherwise information and that four or five hotels were either full, had room only for one night or were not inviting, such that it took about three hours of fighting heavy traffic, noise and unbelievable pollution, before finally settling on a small hotel, sufficiently removed from the core, to provide some peace and a bit of air to breathe and all along, having had nothing to eat. Then, just before its closing time of 5 pm we decided to inquire at the other tourist office to again experience receiving virtually no useful information, but a couple of good maps and as the sun was starting to set, we were mysteriously drawn by the red sandstone clock-tower in the distance, with its chaotic, vibrant Sadar outdoor market, nourished only by a small packet of roasted peanuts, we walked the streets and only as the sun was setting that we finally settled on a restaurant, nearly 12 hours after breakfast. But such is India, that despite all the commotion and lack of food in our case, it is so captivating that eating somehow becomes secondary to the totality of the experience.

November 25

Jodhpur 2

India continues to amaze and in particular the fortification of Mehrangarh, started in the year 1459, which we first got a glimpse of in the dense smog, yesterday afternoon. Today the air seems to have cleared a bit and approaching the fort from a motorcycle rickshaw, we were immediately struck by the immensity of the edifice, as it grows organically from the rocks on which it was built and the actual scale of the construction only becomes fully apparent, standing in front of its main gate, feeling like a small ant, facing a giant dwelling. The hill is some 400' in height and the sheer wall and the massive fortification, and the intricacies of its construction is truly mesmerizing. The actual battlements are from 20 to 100 feet high and there is a clear view of the 5km winding road leading up to the entrance, putting in perspective how the fort dominates the entire azure blue town below. As if needing a reminder a sign said “to breath the clean air here” in between breaths of awe.
It took over three hours to follow the excellent audio guide through the fort and the palaces of the maharajah above. The fort was never taken in battle and the entire experience transported us to a time when no time, money or energy was spared to build a lasting testament to living in safety, in honour and of course luxury. Words and time prevent a fuller description and perhaps some of the photos to be posted later will capture the experience more fully.

Quick Notes
One obvious and striking feature of riding in Rajasthan, especially through the desert and near desert in the dry season, is the stark contrast between the arid, and often colourless landscape of yellow and browns with a smattering of greens and the brilliantly coloured clothes of the women, who wear saris of reds, pinks, yellows and brown, and are usually adorned by jewels and their head is covered from time to time, and men, with bright red, orange, yellow and white turbans, which are radiant against their faces which often sport long curly mustaches, and flowing white beards.

I passed a bit of a milestone, when my computer turned 65,000 kms a 1000 multiple of my age. It makes me wonder, since I am unlikely to reach the age of 100 how much cycling I will have to do to reach the 100,000 km mark?

A couple of days ago, we passed through the small village of Rohet, which according to our guidebook is where Bruce Chatwin, an eccentric Englishman wrote Songlines, one of my favourite books about the Australian aboriginals and how they have a way of navigating through features on the landscape and recording the oral history through songs. I can imagine that the similarities of the land and its features might have accounted for Chatwin selecting this small village with a converted heritage hotel.


1 comment:

David said...

Great to see y'all barreling along. Be healthy. D