Monday, 2 June 2014

Short / Weekend Trips from Ahmedabad

It's very sad that I've explored Gujarat in a more extensive way only in the last few years.  Living in Ahmedabad since almost more than 2 decades why I never explored Gujarat earlier still annoys me. Anyways better late than never.  So I thought why not share the so many beautiful and unique places to visit in Gujarat / Rajasthan from Ahmedabad on a long / short weekend or a day trip.  Here's the list.

*  Weekend trips in Gujarat

3)  Beautiful Jain Temples - Palitana
4)  Shoolpaneshwar Wildlife Sanctuary - Rajpipla
5)  Diu
6)  Hills of Saputara
7)  Okha & Dwarka
8)  Ship breaking yard of Alang & Gopnath

*  Day trips from Ahmedabad

1)  Little Rann of Kutch
2)  Nal Sarovar bird Sanctuary
3)  Thol lake
4)  Jambughoda
5)  Pavagadh
6)  Velvadar black buck Sanctuary
7)  Zaanzari waterfalls
8)  Idar & Polo forest 

* Weekend trips to Rajasthan 

1)  Mount Abu - Called the Switzerland of Gujarati people
2)  Jodhpur - Jaisalmer
3)  Udaipur
4)  Pink city - Jaipur

Monday, 12 May 2014

Bike trip to 'Kutch - The Last Frontier'

I have been to Kutch many many times in the last 10 years.  But apparently it's always been a work trip. Never did I consider exploring this vast district in the north of Gujarat sharing border with Pakistan.  So last Diwali i.e. of 2013 along with Palak we both decided to do a motorbike trip to the Rann of Kutch.  It is almost near best time of the year to visit the Rann of Kutch. The best time to visit the salt desert is from November to March with January being the best month since the water completely dries up making the land covered with salt hard enough to ride into the desert.

Kutch basically means something that alternatively becomes wet and dry.  A big portion of the land here is comprised of flat land that becomes shallow wet land as the monsoon progresses.  Once the rains go away the water seeps in, dries out and the land gets covered in snow white salt.  The Rann of Kutch also called 'The White Desert' had become a major tourist attraction of Gujarat after the very famous promotional ad. campaign of Mr. Amitabh Bachchan for Gujarat tourism.  Kutch surprisingly has an extremely diverse land. The Arabian sea on one side and the Rann of Kutch on the other.  From marshy lands to totally arid stretches of land.  Grassland reserves to wetland reserves where many migratory birds like greater flamingos flock during winter months.

The machines
We decided to leave for Kutch the next day of New Year. Early morning at around 7.30 am after having chai at our regular hangout place near Shivranjani cross roads, we hit the S.G. highway on our bikes.  Palak on his Bajaj Avenger & me on my Bajaj Pulsar.  We had already got our machines oiled & serviced before the Diwali holidays had set in.  Around 8.00 am we crossed the Sanand circle and headed for Bhuj via Sanand - Viramgam - Dhangadhra - Halvad - Malia & Bhachau driving on NH 947 & NH8A. Bhuj is 334 kms from Ahmedabad.  

The roads were almost empty as most of the showrooms, industries, warehouses that line the Sanand highway were closed due to holidays. Weather was just perfectly warm & pleasant for such long distance driving.  After crossing Sanand we had well warmed up driving at around 80 kmh which slowly increased to  the range of 100 - 110 kmh.  Our initial enthusiasm helped us reach Dhangadhra covering a distance of 120 kms at a stretch in about 90 mins. where we had our first break for breakfast. 

Salt pans
The next stop was at Halvad after driving for around 35 kms.  Yes 2nd stop was in a very short time.  A quick chai break and we hit the road once again.  The 3rd stop happened to be just outside Samkhiyali. This part of the highway outside Samkhiyali village is lined with hundreds of wind mills and one can see long stretches of salt pans on either side of the road.  Some quick pics & we headed for Bhachau.  By now the weather had warmed up but luckily no sign of sweat as the cool breeze was still helping.  A quick chai break in Bhachau, a stop at the gas station and off to our main destination Bhuj.  The final stretch of 80m kms from Bhachau to Bhuj was under expansion from 2 lanes to 4 lanes which slowed us down considerably.  Finally after being on the road for around 5 hrs & 30 min. we entered Bhuj and soon checked into 'The City Guest House'

It's the only famous place in Bhuj for backpackers having its mention in lonely planet & trip advisor.  A very budget guest house but friendly and clean. Don't look for it on any travel website for booking the rooms. If you are going to Bhuj, straight away go there and check in. Bhuj also has some very cheap guest houses near the main bus station and some not so very cheap hotels - one of them is Shiv Hotel in Chatti ni Bari around half km from the bus station.  I often used to stay here during my work trips and found it really good but a bit pricey.

A short nap and we headed out for a late lunch. The most common thing to eat in Bhuj is double roti (popularly known as dabeli) and Pav-bhaji.  There is a good South Indian restaurant at a nearby corner from the bus station which also serves a Gujarati Thali but closes by 3.00 pm. Not many options to eat though. We had some few hours of sleep and late evening decided to take a stroll in the market.  Before that we visited one of my client in Bhuj to ask about accommodation near the salt desert but it was in vain. They were quiet surprised and just couldn't believe that we had come all the way from Ahmedabad on bikes to explore Kutch.

The old market in Bhuj is called Waniyawad and has all different kinds of shops.  The old vegetable market though got completely destroyed in the devastating earthquake of 2001.  Lots of buildings are newly constructed after this earthquake and kind of gives a mis-matched feeling about the constructions.  The famous Prag Mahal (palace) lost it's grandeur in the earthquake but the Aina Mahal is still worth visiting. It's worth taking a stroll in the market lanes and just getting a nice vibe of the locals and the cultural.  Right in the center there is Hamirsar lake but apart from monsoon, it mostly has a dry bed.  The native Kutchi people are very friendly, honest and helpful people. Very hospitable and caring.  The local language is Kutchi though most of the people can speak Gujarati too.  An early dinner and we were off to bed.

On way to Narayan Sarovar
Next day morning after breakfast at the guest house we took off towards 'Mata-mo-madh' located some 80 kms from Bhuj. It's the temple of Ashapura mata (mother) - the deity of Kutch and the community Goddess of rulers of Jadeja dynasty. Due to diwali there was a huge queue for worship.  We had our free lunch there which is sponsored by the temple to all those who go there to worship.  

It was noon now and as we still had the whole half day, we decided to visit 'Narayan Sarovar - Koteshwar Temple' which is 135 kms from
Arabian sea at Koteshwar
Mata-no-madh and 215 kms from Bhuj.  I must say the entire stretch of road is really well maintained and one can easily drive around 110 - 120 kms with some caution for the occasional straying of a random dog or cow or goat on the road. It's the last piece of construction on the western side of India and than the Arabian sea starts. We took a chai break, walked around, enjoyed the sea breeze, some pictures and it was time to head back to Bhuj. The evening drive was a wonderful experience with cool breeze, the sight of villagers returning back to their homes after grazing there cattle.  We reached Bhuj around 8.30 at night and met this two guys from France & Italy in our guest house who too were traveling in Kutch and the next day like us were visiting The White Desert.  A good & long enough convo with them and we called it a day with the excitement to ride next morning to the salt desert.
The locals on way from Narayan Sarovar

DAY 3 and 4
We woke up with great enthusiasm to soon leave for the salt desert.  At breakfast we met couple of other travelers and I always like to strike up conversations over food.  As we wanted to spend a night near to the desert we tried to know from the French & Italian guys about their night stay but that didn't helped much. Anyhow we just took off and left the accommodation thing to be explored later. We hit the highway around 9.00 am to 'Dhordo' - the entry point to 'The White Desert'

Perfect weather, almost no traffic and smooth highway, what else one could expect for a perfect ride to the extreme west of India.  Unfortunately a small error in taking the right route made us ride around 30 extra kms but soon we were back on the right route.  Soon we were on the road which had absolutely nothing doting the entire highway.  Just barren semi-arid land till the horizon.  We passed the Tropic of Cancer en-route to Dhordo.  Around 11.00 we reached the permit stop.

All those who want to go into the salt desert has to take a permit from this stop.  I don't remember how much we paid for the permit but for 2 persons and a motorbike we paid around 200 rupees.  One needs to carry a copy of Photo ID, if not be ready to stand in a queue to get it xeroxed.  Fill the form and you get the permit.  Since it was diwali holidays we had to stand for nearly 2 hours in a totally chaotic queue.  There is just one setup for issuing this permit, so be ready to line up in a long queue if you happen to visit there in Diwali.  The permit can be taken for 2 places.  'The White Desert' and 'Kalo Dungar' (The Black Hill).  Visit The Black Hill first and than proceed to The White Desert.  After managing the queue and getting the permit, we straight away headed to Dhordo.  From here till Dhordo there were no eateries or even small shacks where we could have a lunch, so we straight away went to Gujarat Tourism's resort looking for some accommodation, but it was packed.  Instead we hurriedly went to their restaurant which allowed us after few requests as the last customers for lunch.  A bit expensive but a simple and delicious lunch.

'The White Desert'
Around 3.30 pm we reached the BSF (Border Security Force) outpost where one has to submit the permit and register their names to go inside the desert.  It was almost one km drive in the desert and soon we were riding on the land covered with white salt.  Our excitement didn't let us stop and we actually drove a bit inside where our bikes started to get stick in the soft land.  Unfortunately for us, the entire region had recd. heavy unseasonal rains for once in October and hence the land had not completely dried up.  We even saw couple of cars getting stuck.  And it's such a tricky land that the more forcefully you try to bring out your vehicle it goes deeper and deeper.  Luckily for us we just got the rear tyre lifted and we were out of the sludge. There were quite a number of tourists and the excitement was absolutely visible on their face.

The White Desert is a breath taking view.  The entire land till the horizon was covered in white salt.  The only dark spots visible were the trails of footsteps left by people on the still soft land.  We had great fun taking pictures of us with the salt desert in the back ground.  The only disappointment was that we couldn't drove our bikes a bit deep in the desert as the land was still soft.  But the view was just breath taking.  The sun soon was setting down and the twilight indicated we had to return as we still didn't had any accommodation fixed.  If we didn't find one we'll have to go all the way back 80 kms to Bhuj.
Night stay in Hudko village

A quick sign off at the BSF out post and we headed to 'Hudko'.  It's a village 15 kms from Dhordo towards Bhuj where we knew there is a small resort.  Most of the resorts here are run by the local village people who have grabbed the rising tourist inflow to earn some handsome money. They comprise of 'Bhungas' (traditional mud huts of the region) with electricity & running water.  Some even have AC. The rates are quite high around 3500 rupees per night including meals. We asked for a night stay but all rooms were packed.  But the owner offered us a stay in his house in the village for around 1000 rupees per night per person plus the food. For us it was even a better option as we really wanted to stay in the village with the locals.  We agreed and finally we had our night stay fixed.   I remembered what my client had told me the other day.  In Kutch you will never get stuck up. People are extremely helpful anywhere in Kutch if you are in a fix.  We asked the the family if we can have the same dinner as they cook for themselves and they readily agreed.  Soon the dinner was served.  A simple dinner having roti made from bajra (millet), potato & onion vegetable, buttermilk and khichdi (steamed rice with lentils)  But it was spicy as people from this region love their spicy food.  Next we again went to the resort for a light entertainment of folk music.  The local musicians narrated the folk stories from the land singing in Kutchi language and explaining it in Gujarati.

Morning breakfast
What a perfect day it was with a great ride, breath taking view of the salt desert, a delicious local dinner, cold winter night and folk music.  It was just amazing and we returned to our Bhunga for a peaceful sleep. Next day we woke up to fresh air of a beautiful morning sleeping through a very quite night.  Had chai and roti for breakfast.  Took some pictures of the place and finally were heading back to Ahmedabad.  We had to cover around 425 kms and had the whole day.  A brief stop in Bhuj for breakfast and again hit the highway. We had 4 stops including one long lunch break and some small breaks on the highway for clicking pictures. Finally after covering almost 1200 kms in 4 days we got back to Ahmedabad at 7.30 pm.  A truly exhilarating experience.

Though we explored only some portions of this vast & diverse region, the variety in the ecosystem is amazing and to be experienced in person to believe it.  I still wish to explore Mandvi - the beach town and Dholavira - The Harappan city, a part of Indus valley civilization and another ride into The White Desert.  May be another bike trip? ;)

Evening on our way back

So truly has Tejinder Singh Randhawa - the IAS officer in his book about this region has quoted as

'Kutch' - The last frontier of a fading way of life. 
It's a mystery land, not easy to comprehend.  
Its vast length and breadth cannot easily be covered, and it is greater in area than some states of India and even many countries of the world.  
It is a land that time has forgotten.  
Its diverse ecosystems, dazzling Great Rann of Kutch and quaint harbors are worth visiting and only to be believed when seen through own eyes.  
The history, myths and people from this land is something to fall in love with.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Should Mr. Modi be the next PM of India or not ? --- My two cents

The biggest democratic game in the world's biggest democratic and diverse country has begun.  I'm not a big political analyst to judge to decide why or why not, who can and who shouldn't become the next Prime Minister of India.  As most of the people who'll vote for what they feel is the right party and right candidate, I'm going to do the same no matter what. 

Towards the running to this election and still, there has been a lot of sayings about BJP's prime ministerial candidate Mr. Narendra Modi and not wanting him to be the next PM of India.  The main reason for many people rejecting his candidature for the post of PM is the 2002 Gujarat riots.  Since 2002 the only thing these people opposing Mr. Modi have done is to accuse him of being the only man responsible for the riots. I am not trying to justify here that what happened in 2002 is right.  People being killed in the name of religion, caste or sect is totally unjust, uncivilized and the culprits should be punished.  No where killing of innocent people can be justified, after all we are all humans first.

I just want to draw the attention of all these people towards the numerous 'communal' riots that have happened in independent India. The 1984 Sikh riots, the latest Muzaffarnagar riots, Mumbai riots and many more.  Many central governments and state governments should be held responsible for all these riots and the PM's and CM's during these riots should be banned from contesting just like these people wanting to ban Mr. Modi.  But this hasn't happened and still is not happening.  And we all know why?

People have labelled Mr. Modi as a communally polarizing political figure who if elected to be the next PM might create havoc in a religiously diverse India.  But that's a thing of the future and only time will decide it. 

What I'm looking at today when I go to caste my vote is the development and governance track record of the parties and it's PM candidate.  If I go and look at the current ruling alliance of UPA led by Congress, no way would I want to give them the chance to mis-rule India once again.  In the last ten years of their governance they have broken all the records of scams, corruption, indecisiveness and policy paralysis on economic reforms.  And yet they are arrogant enough to defend themselves for running a good government and portraying themselves as the only option available.

Another option is the new party of AAP under Arvind Kejriwal which for me really is like a big joke.  They really should have had the patience of first giving good governance in Delhi and than prove it at the national front.  Today AAP will just divide the Congress or BJP votes and take the parliament towards a more hung parliament, again very detrimental for the country.  And than lastly comes the so called Third front with the outside support of Congress.  The Third front is the worst option that India can have.  It will take India further deep in its economic crisis and each regional party in the third front would pull for favors towards each region and after few months or years ultimately it'll fall.

So what's the best option that we have got at hand?

1)  BJP led NDA with Mr. Modi as the Prime Minister

2)  Congress led UPA (PM candidate yet not declared)

3)  AAP with Arvind Kejriwal

4) Third front govt. formed of regional parties (who call themselves secular) supported from outside by Congress.

Out of the above as of today my common sense and logic would definitely go for Mr. Modi and why not?

Yes I know most who believe that it was Mr. Modi behind the 2002 riots will say how can we vote for such a person responsible for these acts of cruelty? The facts behind his involvement that are out in public domain has not found him guilty.  But till now many facts must have been erased or hidden and might never be made available to the public. So largely it remains to an individual whether to accept Mr. Modi as a person responsible for the riots or not. As such India as a country have never been religiously a tolerant nation.  Still today many or I should say most parts of the country are not tolerant when it comes to religion, caste, or economic and social status.  Be it urban or rural areas.  Shouldn't we blame ourselves for still being in this mess or should we blame the past governments?

As we stand today at the cross roads of electing the best possible government and the best possible person for the most important government post I found it very difficult to elect the right person.  When I say right, most candidates from all the political parties would not fit in the definition of the right person to the post of PM.  And those who fit are not in the foray for being the PM or are not given the chance.  But still we the people of India shall have to vote and elect the best possible person out of the choices available.  

As I mentioned earlier, I don't want a to see a fractured mandate.  I don't want a corrupt, hopeless, scam ridden govt. and so I don't want the current ruling alliance forming the next government.  Hence I'm left with the only choice of NDA led by BJP and Mr. Modi as the PM.  And for me why not?  

*  12 years of total peace in Gujarat.
* Rapid development in agriculture, tourism, infrastructure, industrial growth.  
*  24 x 7 electricity in even the remotest villages of Gujarat which no other state in India has.
*  Good highways connecting urban and rural regions.

And many more such economic development that Gujarat has seen under his 12 years of governance.  I don't say there aren't any social & economic problems in Gujarat and that it's the best place to live in India, but at least it's a much much better place than most of the cities in India and Gujarat is among the top 3 if not on top when it comes to economic development. 

I very strongly believe that a country will get a government just like the population it has.  Politicians don't descend from heaven or from some alien planet.  They come from among us.  The kind of government we get is a reflection of the mentality of majority of the population.  

And as the nation votes for the next government we hope that this time we get a government and PM which actually leaves behind governance on religion and communal lines, leaves behind governance on social and economic lines, but governs India on the basis of equality.  Equality on religion, equality on gender, equality on economic basis.  

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

One day with 'The legend - Amitabh Bachchan'

How will you react when suddenly out of the blue, you realize that in the next 24 hours there is a high possibility of you getting a chance to be with the great and legendary Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan? For majority of the Indians it will be a dream come true.  I would say even to dream of standing next to him, saying few lines to him and shaking hands with him twice can't be in a dream.

As many would agree, if I call him 'The God' of Bollywood, it would not be inappropriate at all.  To get a chance to spend almost 6 - 7 hours around him while shooting is simply unbelievable for me.  So how did it this happen?  Well honestly speaking it was really very sudden.  And the very first moment when Punit called me and talked about the shoot taking place in Ahmedabad for Gujarat Tourism's advertisement - 'Khushboo Gujarat Ki' it didn't excite me much.  The shooting unit were in need of some foreign people for the shoot. So I shared this idea with few of my friends and they agreed to be a part of the shoot for Sunday.

It was actually by Saturday that the excitement really started to crawl into me.  And it was just to have one picture with Mr. Big B that excited me immensely.  So Sunday 26th of January, on the Republic Day of India, Palak, Daniel, Aida, Christin, Daniela, Anette, Miguel and his wife and myself we started together and reached the first location of the shoot.  It was the Vintage Car Museum at Kathwada  Igor, Lucie and Florencia also came a while after we reached. We all had come as instructed with different outfits and some props, as we had to look like tourists.  Palak and myself were actually not called for the shooting but we thought why not take a chance ;) Just in case if we can sneak in for few shots in the background.  We came to know that the locations after the Vintage Car Museum will be Law Garden market and Sarkhej Roza. All three are kind of a must visit locations for any tourist visiting Ahmedabad.  

The first shot at the Vintage Car Museum started after breakfast.  Everyone and everything was ready for the shot and soon Mr. Bachchan arrived from his vanity van. His personality and aura around him was too gripping.  I was awestruck on the very first glimpse of him.  It was for the first time I was seeing him so close. After the shot he was made to sit in the garden area of the museum and soon the owners of the place came to greet him.  He was presented with a gift and some pictures were clicked as always.  Palak and myself were really getting impatient now to get ourselves clicked with him.  All our other friends (yes foreign friends) had already got the chance to get clicked with Big B right after the shot.  Lucie had the best picture clicked with Mr. Bachchan.  I'm so jealous of her... ;)

Mr. Bachchan pointing towards the gift that he
wanted to show us
So finally we asked our friends to lead us to Mr. Big B for at least one picture with him and they very willingly agreed.  Thank you guys.  So together we all went up to him ignoring all those stopping us and requested Mr. Bachchan for some more pictures. It was just so very nice of Mr. Bachchan that with a smile he stood up and was standing among us for more pictures. What simplicity and humbleness.  His greatness can be experienced just by standing next to him.  After a series of clicking pictures, he suddenly turned to the gift he was presented with and very eagerly wanted to show it to all of us. 
Mr. Bachchan showing the album that he
was gifted
Very fondly he was showing the first part of the album which was filled with 5 and 10 rupee notes whose numbers were exactly the same as his birthday and the date of release of his pictures.  Now that's some gift.  

We all had our questions to ask him and he very gently, happily and politely replied to all what we asked.  Standing next to him one can easily feel the aura of his greatness as a human being. As for me I was just waiting to just tell him that "Sir, it's a honor to meet you in person" and to that one line of mine he smiling extended his hand to shake mine and I willingly took his hand for a warm handshake.  Wow, it was just wow.  I couldn't have asked for more.  It was almost 10 min. of uninterrupted time with him clicking pictures, sharing a nice conversation and some jokes particularly from Christin & Daniel.
Mr. Bachchan with all of us. One life long memory

The next location of the shoot was Law Garden market.  A short shoot at the traditional dress market and soon we left for the last location of the day, Sarkhej Roza.  But before leaving the legend didn't disappoint the huge crowd that had gathered at Law Garden to have just one glimpse of their superstar.  He waved to every part of the crowd and the response was a huge instant roar from the crowd.  

By late afternoon we had reached Sarkhej Roza and a huge crowd had already gathered to see their superstar. While the shot was getting ready, Mr. Bachchan was welcomed by a huge roar from the crowd. Soon he changed for the shoot and was ready.  It is here at Sarkhej Roza while shooting Palak and myself noticed what a perfectionist he is.  Two instances one when he asked for more smoke around the frame to give that spiritual effect and another one was during the next frame when even after the director had got his perfect shot, twice Mr. Bachchan requested to take another shot as he was not satisfied with the shot he gave.  And not to forget that the director was none another than Shoojit Sircar who has directed Vicky Donor and Madras Cafe.

Here also after the shoot Mr. Bachchan didn't miss to oblige his fans by waving at the crowd who had gathered just to have a glimpse of him from as close as possible.  Even the policemen who were around didn't miss a chance to capture his picture on their mobile phones.  I am totally thrilled to be around him on this shoot.  To experience the aura around a great personality, to see his humbleness, politeness, work perfection has been simply amazing.