There were about a dozen or so camps with luxury tents built on stone platforms and all the amenities of a hotel room. The first one I approached was catering to tour groups and after starting at 3500 rupees and ending at 1500 we still had misgivings, since it was on the edge of the dunes and the prospect of sharing the sunset with another tour group and attending a musical and dancing session of local folk art, just did not appeal.
So we went native with one of the local operators, where for 800 rupees we got a tent and all the fixings, lunch, dinner and breakfast although it was not quite luxury. There was no electricity, and the food was what the staff was eating but it enhanced the experience and the sun-set and moonrise were spectacular, albeit we had to share the dunes with lots of tourist and traveling musicians and dancers but that’s all part of the carnival atmosphere that one expects in a popular tourist spot. For future reference who plan to follow our tracks be sure to negotiate carefully since we were told that our 800 rupees included only one camel and that the second one would cost 150. The ride in the dunes was fine for a few minutes but after that I was more than happy to lay back and enjoy the view.
Negotiating here is an art that I am still developing and will have to wait another day for a fuller description
We and more importantly the bikes survived the 6.5 hour bus ride from Jaiselmer, although I was concerned given that they, the bikes that is, were simply placed on the roof of a regular bus, after being told they would ride inside the cargo area, in the pitch dark of the dawn at 6 am. However, as the bus made the local rounds, after several stops they were tied down without any supervision from me which I would have preferred to make sure they were securely secured and not in a position to be damaged.
The ride was quite comfortable, although quite chilly for the first couple of hours when the sun came up and we watched how in two hours the bus covered what was for us two days of some of the best riding in the solitude of the desert. Perhaps the only note of discomfort was that non of the places where the bus stopped had official washrooms, so I followed the local practice of using grounds that become designated by ones olfactory senses. This practice is quite wide spread wherever crowds of people gather, including the open sewer gutters of the front gate of Jaiselmer's fort. Women have to be more imaginative and perhaps this explains why they wear skirts.
Arriving in Bikaner, at the outside wall of the fort, the biggest challenge was to fight off all the rickshaw drivers that had the best deals for hotels in town while assembling the bikes in the early afternoon sun, with the earlier noted problems that fort walls suffer from, which in this case was the only place the bikes could lean against while I changed clothes and mounted the panniers. One the drivers saw we had our own transport and were going to find a hotel on our own, they become very friendly, helped take the bikes off the bus, provided directions and watched with some amazement as we left for the local tourist office which happens frequently be in the state run hotel, which often serves some of the best food, since they cater to locals.
Bikaner is quite a delight, not only for its dramatically painted Jain temple from the 1500 and a fort from the same era, but from the point of view that its largely a very active trading center and tourists are few and far between, and as such we can enjoy the local sites, watch kids play and giggle in the streets without constantly being the center of attention of merchants or people wanting “one pen” or “one rupee” which is often the case in the more touristic towns.
The food is also exceptional here because it has not been modified for the tasteless buds of foreign visitors. The lack of tourists was evident during the tour of the fort, where we were a very small part of a group of mostly Hindi speakers with the guide using English for us and another couple.
Tomorrow, we head south and sadly, we are starting to count the remaining days.