Mumbai to Delhi was the initial thought, then Udaipur to Delhi and at this point its only the section Udaipur to Jaisalmer that is a certainty and how we will get to Delhi is yet to be determined. The seed of the idea of riding to Jaisalmer was first planted by Andrew T. an experienced traveler friend from.the JCC. The seedling grew as it was subsequently reaffirmed by several others en-route, despite the fact that this region has apparently not had had any rain in three years, and camel feed costing about 25 rupees a .kilo, which translates to about $10 per day per camel. Jaisalmer is described as an important trade center that rises magically from the desert, a captivating description as a destination, but what made it appealing, despite the fact that its the opposite direction Delhi, was that it is very remote, about 60kms from the Pakistani border and being a small town, the roads would be quiet and places few and far between, which given some of the frenetic paced traffic of the days before, would be a refreshing change.
Leaving Jodhpur even in the relative tranquility of the early morning traffic, on arrival in Mandore, only some 10kms to the north, we were very quickly transported to another place and time. Mandore was the capital of the Marwars, before Jodhpur, and as such it has some relics dating back to the 14th century. However, what Mandor is known for mostly is its gardens that contain the cenotaphs of the rulers of Jodhpur from the 1700's. The monuments are made of dark-red sandstone, have intricately carved columns supporting three story structures a fitting testament to the rulers they commemorate. Perhaps not quite as noble as the gesture of 64 queens and concubines who committed sati in 1724 on the death of their ruler.
From Mandore, we headed to Osiyan, our nights stay, on roads which were through a desiccated landscape and the road becoming more narrow such that in places it was a single lane which meant giving way to trucks, albeit they were few and far between. A few kilometers from town a young man in flowing bright red tunic and white jodhpurs, identified himself as the priest of the Hindu temple and the nephew of the priest of the Jain temple, who is prominently mentioned in the Lonely Planet. At first a bit suspicious, we followed his lead and to the only place to eat in town, where we had a delicious tali with a large group of locals and then proceeded to meet Prakash Bhanu Sharma, the priest of the Hindu temple who runs the pilgrim temple, a free school for 200 kids as well as the only guesthouse in town. Upon further discussions, there is little that he does not run. He owns 25 camels and organizes camel tours, including one that is now taking place to Pushkar over a period of 9 days, which he supplies with food on the way each day. He also has jeep tours, owns a general store and if you are interested in a stone carving that he made himself or by one of his student that too is available, and of course travel and ticketing etc.
The room is quite comfortable and large with two picture windows, a roof top terrace, a detached washroom and all the hot water one cares to heat using a giant electric emersion coil that no self-respecting CSA official would approve, that you insert into a metal bucket and in a few minutes a gallon of hot water is ready, if you are careful not to get burned or electrocuted in the process.
The Jain temple is magnificent and dates from the 14th century and we meet up with its priest from the road who gives us a detailed guided tour and posed for a dramatic photo as part of the bargain.
For dinner, we are back to the same little restaurant where several local families are eating and a huge bull is constantly poking his nose in, no doubt looking for a handout. The tali is a complete India meal that consists of two or three vegetable dishes, roti, a yogurt, and chutney, and the intention is to keep offering food until one is completely full, ending with rice as the last filler. Its a fixed price eat till you drop meal that cost in local places, slightly less than a dollar.
Prices for most things vary a great deal, depending on the clientele being served. In the upmarket hotels each dish can cost two to three dollars and meal for two, eight to ten bucks or four to five times as much as in a place the locals eat. While the setting might be fancier the food is also has been watered down to a common denominator of the tourists tastes, which usually means bland with little or no spices. Needless to say if given the choice, and often we don't have much of a choice, we eat where the locals do and are loving it.
In terms of accommodations, again its a case of there being either no choice at all, as in the guesthouse described above, or the fancy modern hotel near the fort a Kumbargahr or more typically in a haveli, a former palace or fort of a local prince, whose place has been converted into a hotel facility. We have also twice stayed in a chain of hotels run by the Rajastan government, which to our surprise and delight have been clean and comfortable and as a bonus, serve food catering to mostly Indian tourists at local prices.
As I am writing these notes in the small desert town off Pokaran, watched a glorious sunset and since we met the cook (as well as the 10 or so other staff members, as we are the only guests in the establishment) we had an opportunity to discuss the dinner he will cook for us, while I continue to type in the dark, enjoying the soothing sound of the wind as there is an almost complete silence and the cooling temperature and the brilliant moon and stars that appeared almost immediately after sunset.
And speaking of temperatures, it has been almost perfect for cycling. In the morning, there is a slight chill in the air, as the temperature dips to about 15 degrees and rises to the low 30s in the late afternoon. But since there is virtually no humidity and the air appears to be cool, the riding is very comfortable especially in the desert where the terrain is nearly flat and we have even enjoyed some tailwinds from the east.
The desert is mostly reddish sand with patches of green shrubs and as I found in the prairies, less is often more where each small item looms larger, whether its a herd of goats, a few camels, a group of thatched huts (which according to Alison are like the ones in Africa) or a speeding buck racing away just as I am about to photograph it. Most welcome are the signs indicating a settlement on average 15kms away, often with a huge cell tower visible for many kilometers ahead only to discover that the settlement in often but a cross-road with a small truck stop with metal frames with webbing used by the truckers to rest, and most welcome for us serving tiny cups of masala chai, hot, sweet and with freshly ground spices; always a much appreciated energy booster and an opportunity to meet the curious gazes and questions of the locals.
From Osiyan we headed further west to Khichan, where in a man-made lake for the last 150 yrs the locals have been feeding about 7,000 demoiselle cranes that winter here having flown over the Himalayas from Siberia. The sight of these elegant bluish/purple birds, essentially in the middle of nowhere was quite striking.
Our next overnight stop was Phalodi that reached its zenith in the 18th century when trading in salt allowed local businessmen to build beautiful havelis, or small palaces or mansions, again of red sandstone, all elaborately carved and of exquisite design.. Alas, the town is crumbling, as is its 15th century fort, and walking through it is in part like a set for an Indiana Jones movie, at times like an archeological dig interspersed by buildings that have been slightly restored and in a few cases, as in the fully restored hotel we stayed in, well looked after. The whole town has open sewers and narrow streets with overhanging balconies, giving it an exotic middle-ages feel with the usual struggle for space on the narrow roads amongst ever present cows, cars, motorcycles, bicycles and a few daring pedestrians. Only time will tell if this town will follow the fate of its crumbling fort, or that of our hotel which has modern comforts built into a well preserved historical shell.
The site of one shoe by the side of the road is a common sight in most developing countries where the most common mode of transport is the motorbike and is usually a plastic flip-flop or thong, which one imagines can easily slip of the feet. So it was quite curious that an one point there were hundreds of shoes for several kilometers, often in good condition and obviously in pairs by the side of the road. One hypotheses I advanced that they may have been the spilled cargo of a truck or a burial ground for shoes as part of some strange ritual. Only when we stopped for chai that we learned that the shoes were left by pilgrim who out of reverence walk the last 10 or so kilometers to a temple, commemorating a saint who died in 1458 and who is revered by both Hindus and Muslims by the name of Ramdev Mandir. The temple constructed in the 1930s is a gaudy affair, with a long line of shops selling souvenirs and beggars and countless people seeking donations on the way to the entrance giving it a carnival atmosphere. Once inside, there is again a crush of people showing their devotion with staff urging and at times pushing people to move on to keep the crowds flowing.
After our comfortable stay in the government run hotel in Pokaran, we left early to cover the 110 kms to Jaisalmer. Riding conditions were particularly good as the traffic was minimal and we were on the road immediately after our breakfast at 7a.m. As well the road had become noticeably wider and smoother which is explained by the fact that its close to the Pakistani border and the movement of military convoys is quite evident, as is the signs pointing to artillery ranges and the frequent sounds of explosions in the distance. Pokaran was also the site of the first Indian underground nuclear test in the 1970s and the resulting aftershocks were given as the explanation why some of the stairs in the town's fort had crumbled.
About half way to our intended destination there was a fairly crudely painted sign pointing to Mirvana Nature Resort and Farm about 3kms off the main road. Once again, we followed the sign, not quite knowing if this was a nudist colony, and later day hippie colony having difficulty spelling Nirvana, to discover a luxury resort with a swimming pool, lots of luxury tents and ultramodenrcottage style accommodations made to look like African huts.. After some very judicious bargaining we have once again living in a hut.. And as anticipated, late afternoon a busload of German tourists arrived which broke the silence of the oasis but by that time we already had too much time in the sun lounging at the pool.
December 1 Jaiselmer
From about 5kms from town, it became obvious why we came to this town in the Thar desert, as the fort with its golden yellow hews shimmered in the mid-day sun, looming large over the horizon. Its only when we entered the fort's main gates, the fort being from the 1150's did we fully appreciate that this is not only a magical historical edifice, in gleaming yellow sandstone, reminiscent of Jerusalem, but also a living museum, as about 15,000 people live within the fort and life carries out for some as if time had stood still for centuries and at the same time there is as one might expect a very vibrant commerce catering to the tourists, with all kinds of clothes, general merchandise, souvenirs and restaurants, as well as the usual throng of vehicles, pedestrians and cows competing for space, as if one were in the middle of a five ring circus, not quite knowing where to look but always keeping an eye on the ground, which is of cobbled stone of dubious smoothness with an abundance of droppings and other hazards. The totality is at time like the crescendo, especially when a motorbike or rickshaw fights for room and signals its intentions with the shrillest sound possible and at times, sitting on the endless rooftop restaurants offering unobstructed views of the city and beyond, its as is we were in a totally secluded spot..
Tomorrow, we will head towards the sand dunes of Sam or Saim, and after much back and forth, given that neither the trains nor buses have schedules that permit leaving and arriving in daylight, we have chosen to go to Bikaner, another city in the desert, not exactly inline with Delhi, but it will allow us to ride to the famous camel trading town of Pushkar, and perhaps to Jaipur, before we will have to make our way to Delhi and leave for Australia on Decmber 16th.
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