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Published: October 16th 2009
Buffalo try to escape the downpour at Sasan Gir
So, hopping off the train early, to shouts of ye bye Jon from nearly half the train, I found a bed and checked that Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary was indeed open early... and thankfully it was! The Asiatic lion used to roam freely across much of central Asia, but after ruthless hunting and loss of habitat, was reduced to a little over 30 lions by the 1930s. Mercifully, the Nawab of Junagadh, the local ruler, decided to protect what remained of the species, protecting the Sasan Gir forest and instigating a breeding program at nearby Junagadh zoo. Sadly, my safari didn bring any lion sightings (the President apparently saw 23... a little unfair I think), but I did see lots of Indian wildlife, including nilgar, chittal, samba deer and a jackal. Halfway through the afternoon safari, the heavens opened and gave me my first taste of the Indian monsoon. Shielding my camera and bag, we dived into the shelter of a local village (the maaldharis still live and farm inside the sanctuary, coexisting peacefully with the lions) to sit it out... pitying the herd of buffalo and camels who weren so lucky.
After my safari, I resumed my journey to
One of Junagadh's neglected tombs
Junagadh, a little-known Indian city recommended to me by friends back home. Walking around the next morning was a delight... Junagadh is a beautiful, if faded city, with grand Indo-Islamic buildings and bustling streets. Junagadh was the seat of the Nawabs small kingdom, which ended during Partition when he wanted to go into Pakistan and his subjects did not... they won, and the Nawab decamped over the border. Now, Junagadh is a place with a rich fabric, but seemingly no idea of its worth... I saw only 3 other tourists while I was there, and none of the historic monuments are particularly well cared for. Which is a shame... because the people here are amazingly friendly, as in all of Gujarat, and the citys relics are great fun to explore. I crawled around a tomb complex overgrown with creepers and weeds, picking my way through elaborately carved mausoleums. For his trouble, my guide (a young boy of about 12) only accepted 20 rupees when I forced it on him. The grandest building in town is the Mahabat Maqbara, the Nawabs formal mausoleum, with fairytale spiral staircases punctuating the sky. Sadly, it looks abandoned and will probably soon start to decay
The crowning temple at Girnar Hill
unless given more care and attention.
At the head of town is Upperkot Fort, a strange place with huge walls, in some places 20 metres high. The centre of the fort is largely overgrown, but in amongst the trees and grass are Jama Masjid, an old mosque, and two baolis - communal wells, built centuries ago and an architectural feature almost unique to Gujarat. The fort is ideal for aimless wanderings along its walls, which provide great views of what would be my destination for the next day - Girnar Hill.
Girnar Hill is a 600 metres high mountain, on which have been built a series of temple complexes. The earliest, Jain temples set about two thirds of the way up, were built as far back as the 12th century. Thankfully, a series of steps were built to reach the temples in the 1900s... but unthankfully there are 10,000 of them! I started the ascent at dawn. Expecting to be almost alone, I was surprised to be just part of a throng of people making the climb... and the only one wearing what could be described as walking gear! Joining me on the climb were men, women and
Girnar's jain temples appear through the clouds
children, all dressed as if they were just popping down to the shops. The elderly and frail were also making the trip... some I later discovered had set off before 4am, maybe taking all day to make the pilgrimage. My other constant companions were porters, who carried up provisions, and sometimes huge stone tablets for repairing the temples, on their heads and backs... much respect for these people!
After an hour or so of trying not to count the steps, I reached the first temple complex. Cameras aren allowed inside, but suffice to say the interior is amazing... every surface is bedecked with the most intricate stone carving, and as I was alone inside it was absolutely silent. Ten minutes inside somewhere like this is worth climbing 10,000 steps... and Im not even religious! I carried on up to the top, breaking through the clouds just before the summit, where two peaks are surmounted by small temples. The uppermost and last peak is crowned by little more than a shed with a tin roof... but I paid my respect to the image inside before making my way back down. Sadly, as beautiful and holy as the mountain is, it
doesn escape the Indian peoples love of littering. Theyll cheerfully throw a plastic bottle over the edge, right next to one of their most sacred temples... a trend replicated in every corner of the country Ive been in so far. I still can bring myself to throw plastic chai cups or meal trays out of train windows, and stubbornly pile them up inside the carraige until an Indian does it for me. This is India they always say as I shake my head.
Descent completed, I jump on a train and head back to Ahmedabad (where I endured the scariest rickshaw ride ever... all rickshaw drivers are slightly mad, but this one was borderline suicidal)... excited at the prospect of meeting my mate Mozza and girlfriend Em in Udaipur, the first friendly faces Ill have seen since saying farewell to Anna and Ali on the Garden Route more nearly two months ago.
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