This was my first experience of travelling through Gujarat and having a regular supply of flavourful and unique Gujarati food over 5 days. I’ve spent some days in Baroda in the past but those trips were hosted by relatives and felt more like family meets.  Travelling through Indian cities without local hosts can be a real test of hospitality and the tourist-friendly quotient of a region. Ahmedabad, the first city on our Gujarat circuit, was put to test twice over 5 days end-May.

AHMEDABAD: Confluence of old and new

Ahmedabad was going to be a stopover on the way to Sasan Gir but Kishore and I were keen to get a feel of the city before hitting the road. Initially, I’d meant to book us on a bus to Gir but a word of advice from TS Travels in Gurgaon helped decide in favour of a taxi from Ahmedabad based Northwest Safaries and that worked really well for a quick scan of the city over our precious 3 hours. Our driver, Panna Lal, acted as an able guide and understood our keenness to see the city’s landmarks and experience its cuisine. Our early morning flight had got us into Ahmedabad around 9 am. My Net research on the city had highlighted at least one place that opened that early to visitors—Gandhi Ashram. Panna Lal was thoughtful in stopping at 2 other places on the way to the Ashram and making our sightseeing more rewarding. In those morning hours, we drove through the old city and managed to visit:

i) Hutheesing Jain Temple
A beautiful temple to start our journey of Gujarat. I liked its location, and its pillar at the entrance providing a quick way to pay obeisance to Lord Ganesh.

ii) Sidi Sayeed Masjid
It was a 10 minute stop to get a sense of an active masjid and admire its carved jaalis on a far-end wall.

iii) Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya
Its well-made website had made the place seem larger than the physical area. The main museum hall showed posters from Gandhiji’s life and a smaller hall acted as a shop to sell publications, posters and some small mementoes. I picked up a small stone statue of Gandhiji’s 3 famous monkeys from the shop. The pace in the Ashram was slow and it felt nice to be there. Sadly, Sabarmati river on the side was almost totally devoid of water.

and eat:

a) Dhabeli at a roadside cart that Panna Lal declared as ‘safe’. It was a bun filled with chutneys and some mashed potato; at our request, we got some garlic chutney to spice up the pav, and

b) A Gujarati thali at Gopi on Ellisbridge. I had Vishalla and Toran Dining Hall on my list for checking out. Upon calling Vishalla, they informed that they opened only post 3 pm. About latter, I learnt that it was a Government run restaurant. We decided to give it a skip and go along with Panna Lal-suggested Gopi, and didn’t regret it. A curtailed thali at Rs85 was full of katoris of vegetables—we celebrated the point of only 2 of them being sweet. The food was flavourful and low on salt and included oil smeared soft rotis. Refreshing chaach accompanied the meal and fresh fruit Shrikhand came at an additional cost of Rs20 that we all shared, including Panna Lal.

That day being Sunday had most shops closed. I’d hoped to quickly browse small shops selling khadi products outside Gandhi Ashram but since they were closed, the decision to start our 7-hour drive to Sasan Gir became easy.

On the way to Gir, even while we were in Ahmedabad, we stopped to see:

iv) Sarkhej Roza
A 10 minute stop at this small fort housing the tombs of Mehmud Shah Begada and his queen seemed enough to admire its stone jaali work–at least for that hour of the day. The only hall we entered had noticeably large tombs in a row. Outside the tomb area, Muslim women and children seemed to be out on a picnic or family outing, and sat there chatting and playing.

In Junagarh, Panna Lal insisted on stopping by two more places, and on seeing them, we were glad to have done so:

v) Vintage Car Museum
A big house with acres of land showing off Bhagwatsinhji of Gondal’s vintage wheeled possessions. There were (I think) 38 cars placed next to each other in a circular shed, all of which could be photographed but not touched. Some newer ones were behind a fussy grill that were difficult to photograph. We were told that all the vehicles were in a working condition and they were cleaned everyday. Later, we met the lone cleaner responsible for keeping them spruced up. There was also a stationary luxury train coach with beds, furniture and crockery neatly arranged in it at a separate viewing charge of Rs20/person. The visit to the car section came at Rs50/person. An interesting experience for me, especially since I hadn’t seen so many vintage cars this close, and because the property was dotted with tamarind trees and had lots of both green and brown tamarinds lying all around to pick and sample!  It was Kabir’s first experience of eating fresh tamarind. But, it was burning hot at that hour and not a time to dwell on the place more than absolutely necessary.

vi) Tomb of Nawab Mahabat Khanji
Domes in varying sizes and intricate floral work on the two monuments provided an unforgettable sight. What was also surprising was that a building as beautiful as that was right on a busy road and its compound had various groups of boys playing cricket in seemingly perfect harmony.

After 3 days in Gir, we returned to Ahmedabad. Our initial plan was to get there only in time for our flight out but uncertainty of Sinh Sadan reservations for our 4th night and having already completed our 4 planned safaris of Gir Sanctuary, we returned to Ahmedabad via Veraval and checked into Hotel Accolade. Our entry into Ahmedabad this time showed us Satellite, a town developing on the suburbs and acting host to many Malls, branded shops and apartment complexes placed tightly next to each other—much like a town full of the MG Road of Gurgaon. Hotel Accolade was at a convenient location on CG Road but rather oddly sandwiched between and behind buildings. The hotel was okay for a night’s stay, far better than Sinh Sadan of Gir, but I wouldn’t recommend it if people have other tried and tested choices for their Rs3000/night. The room was so small that the 3 of us had to be mindful of our movements so we didn’t trip over each other or the spare mattress meant for Kabir.

The high points of that evening in Ahmedabad were : seeing our 2 Reliance datacards provide fast Net connectivity from the cool hotel room after staying stagnant in Gir the previous 3 days; browsing Law Garden stalls; shopping at the Induben Khakra store (that Panna Lal thought of showing us upon my enquiries about places selling local eats); and having dinner at :

c) Sasuji
A Rajdhani-like restaurant known for its Gujarati thali. It was close enough to the hotel and having Panna Lal and his taxi, we found it comfortable hopping in and out of the car on our evening drive of the city. Like our hotel, Sasuji was ensconced in a narrow building showing 2 long rows of chairs on the ground floor—presumably for those waiting for a table in the restaurant! At 7:30 pm the place was empty. The restaurant was on the 3rd floor that we accessed using a tiny lift with a movable grill door. Each thali came at Rs150. It was larger and more lavish than the one at Gopi. Food was good, even if rich. Khichdi and various subzis were lovely to taste. Other than its food, the restaurant’s USP was the sign language used among its staff. It was fun to watch the manager calling food servers and attendants using his gestures and snapping of fingers in unique ways to represent different services needed at tables.

Next morning, we stayed indoors long enough to keep time for at least one unseen landmark of Ahmedabad and a quick snack before getting to the airport. That place ended up as:

vi) Kankaria Lake and Zoo complex
The complex offered a view of the Kankaria lake and housed a zoo showing some unusual birds but regular wild animals. Even though many enclosures had wet khus mats hanging on them to provide cool air to animals, after seeing animals in the wild, it was sad to see them sitting in their cramped spaces amidst human cacophony. In particular, 2 tigers looked too big for the public side of their enclosures. Even if one got to see many exotic bird species in a single place, it felt criminal to have caged them in small enclosures in that heat and mess. I wonder if our zoos will ever get the brainwave of setting up bird parks of the kind seen even in a small place like Bali–where birds are given larger spaces to be and parks are aesthetically designed and maintained. Places like Goa and Kerala that are naturally endowed with greenery and don’t heat up too much, would do well with such parks…

It was very hot to walk around the zoo but it provided a view into the lives of those picnicking or out on a romantic walk there.

We wound up our time in Ahmedabad by stopping for a snack at:

d) Swati in Law Garden
It was a hip fast food café offering idlis, samosas and local preparations of dhokla and panki among other snacks. Dhokla came with kadhi on the side and thin layers of pankis came stuck to banana leaves in which they were steamed. We had the most unusual but refreshing lemongrass ice cream on the side. If that wasn’t enough as the USP of the place, a paanwaala outside cheered me up further by showing small packets of take-away dry paan mix, aam paaper and mukhwaas that we bought in quantities to last at least some weeks.

We got to the airport an hour or so earlier than our reporting time, and were only too happy to settle down in the still-quiet and cool lounge with our respective handheld reading devices while exchanging notes on experiences of the last 5 days.

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