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India: Alang

A ship anchored off the shore at Alang
Huge ships drop their anchors for the very last time off the beach at Alang

Wrecker's yards, where cars go to die, are sad places. With twin headlights, a grinning radiator grille and a smiling curve to the bumper, your average car looks human, whether it's the frog-eyed bewilderment of the VW Beetle, the blockheaded bouncer look of the Volvo, the cute innocence of the Mini or the slit-eyed sophistication of the Ferrari. Stacks of rusting and half-dismantled cars look depressing because we personify them, subconsciously succumbing to images of retirement homes, mass graves and the inevitability of death. I should know; I spent plenty of time in Australia searching for bits to make my car, Oz, king of the road.

A ship pictured through some trees
There is greenery in Alang, just not much

Getting to Alang

Piles of ship parts in the yards of Alang
Nothing is wasted in Alang; absolutely everything is salvaged and sold off

Because the working conditions are appalling and safety levels are laughably non-existent, Alang is a major draw for the poor of India who are desperate for a job, any job. People from Orissa and Bihar, two of the poorest states, make up a large percentage of the workers, but there are people from everywhere from Tamil Nadu to Nepal. I was waiting for the bus in Bhavnagar on the morning of Sunday 7th June – I took the phrase 'it's difficult to reach by bus, so take a taxi for the day' in my guidebook as a personal challenge, especially as there were four or five buses each way per day – and while I was trying to work out the bus timetable a sadhu wandered up to me, saffron clad and clutching a bag and a plastic container half full of what looked like month-old yoghurt. 'Where are you going?' he asked.

Two ships anchored off the Alang coast
Ships queuing up to be broken down
A large tanker beached at Alang
Mighty supertankers are rammed into the beach and ripped apart bit by bit
A half-dismantled ship
The ships are stripped by working from one end to the other
Houses next to a shipyard
The workers' houses are extremely close to the shipyards

Visit to the Ashram

The head of the ashram (left) and his right-hand man
The head of the Gopnath ashram (left) posing with his right-hand man

I was impressed by the view from the chai shop, but what I really wanted to do was to get inside a yard and nose around; I wasn't stupid enough to want to climb around on a half-deconstructed ship, but some close-up views would have been great. My new-found friend said there would be plenty of time to worry about getting permission from the Port Officer later; first, it was time to visit his ashram.

A man sitting by the entrance to a platform
A doorman guarding his platform

The Yards of Alang

Ship parts strewn throughout the Alang shipyards
The yards are strewn with bits of ship as far as the eye can see

I had previously met a few westerners who had visited Alang, and their advice had been not only to avoid taking pictures, but to leave my camera at home; unauthorised photography was not tolerated and would result in the removal of your film and undoubtedly a big baksheesh bill. I'd brought my camera anyway, and was mighty glad that I had; possibly the fact that it was Sunday made a difference, or the fact that it was high tide and the ships were being smacked by waves, but there were no workers to be seen, just a few lazing gate keepers, and quite a few of them let me in to wander among the guts of ships from all over the world. Only one of them asked for anything – two Cokes, which I didn't bother to buy him seeing as lots of other places weren't asking for a thing – and another bloke took a fancy to my biro (which he duly pinched) but there were no officials, no baksheesh issues and no problems with taking photos.

A half-dismantled tanker
Bit by bit, even the biggest ships disappear

Cricket Among the Ships

Mark with the locals of Alang
Chatting with the wonderfully friendly people of Alang

The inhabitants of Alang are, though, and they're also incredibly friendly. As I wandered past the yards and admired the workers' slums leaning against each other, I smiled and got smiles back, I wobbled my head and got wobbling heads in return, and I waved and got raised palms for my trouble. And halfway back to the bus stand I came across a handful of boys playing cricket across the main road – steadfastly ignoring trucks and cycles as they turfed up the wicket – and they insisted that I join in.

Two ships next to each other on the beach
Huge ships are rammed into the beach just yards from each other

1 This is a different act depending on where you are sipping it. Normally chai is served in a glass, either in a small full glass or a large half-full glass, in which case you just drink it normally. If you're served chai in a cup and shallow saucer, you should pour the chai into the saucer and drink the chai from the saucer. Finally (and this is more common in the south) if you are served chai in a cup and deep saucer, you should pour the chai into the saucer, then pour it back into the cup, and drink from the cup; this is to mix in the sugar that's sitting idly on the bottom, so if you don't like your chai sweet you don't pour it and mix it up. Oh, and 'service tea' is the name for the way we drink it in England, with separate milk and a teapot, but that's service tea, not chai. Chai is to tea what McDonald's is to haute cuisine... except chai tastes great!