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Published: February 10th 2005
After stopping to ask her directions and despite the language barrier, this local lady invited us to dinner. The hut behind is her home.
I would have walked off, but after an hour in the back of a small jeep with nine others (there were six more in the front) I wasn't entirely sure that my legs were still attached to my body. We were travelling between Palanpur, Gujarat and Mt Abu in Rajasthan and had been stopped at the border for a routine police check. It should have been straight forward but our driver looked concerned, we too were concerned when his "assistant" sprinted off down the road in a general Gujarat direction - a few minutes later, after flagging down some other jeeps he re-appeared and our driver, by a remarkable coincidence, "found" his driving license. That should have been it but on returning triumphantly from the checkpoint both men flapped around for a while before revealing that they couldn't find the keys. Thinking about it, even if I my legs were working, I couldn't move due to a safety feature common in these jeeps - a 50 kg bag of rice.
Rajasthan had been on our wish list from the start, so much so that we were willing to allocate a large proportion of our India time to this "Land of
Kings". Mt Abu was the first stop, used by the Rajasthanis as a summer retreat to escape the 50 degree heat of the plains; it has a beautiful setting but is reminiscent of a British seaside resort, tacky souvenir shops and a boating lake complete with swan pedaloes. We arrived early evening to be told that the previous night's temperature had been -2...so we were definitely escaping the heat. A couple of nights here allowed us enough time for a lengthy hike past some picturesque lookouts and to the highest peak of the Aravalli mountain range.
Next stop was Udaipur, an amazing lakeside city as featured in the Bond film Octopussy...the only problem was the lake is now dry and nobody had told us, no reliable monsoon for the past 5 years has led to the shores receding year on year, still we now have the unique experience of walking on the bed of Lake Pichola and it didn't detract from our enjoyment of the town. Possibly the highlight was a trip to the Monsoon palace with it's stunning views of the city and the surrounding valleys, or maybe it was the haircut and beard trim...
fascinating city Udaipur is a firm fixture on the tourist trail, our next stop, Bundi, is not. A bus and train journey via Chittaurgarh saw us reach Bundi late afternoon and we were lucky to be recommended a 400 year old family run guest house in the old town, we spent five nights there with a small multinational group of fellow travellers. We soon found out that Bundi has some particularly clever residents, the monkeys; they steal laundry items and then systematically tear the item apart until someone pays the pre-arranged ransom of one chapati.
If you ever mention the town's name to anyone who's been there you get the same response "Ahhhh Bundi” it’s such a laid back town, nestled in a small valley with a palace directly above and the huge Tarragargh fort atop the highest hill. Our visit to the fort was all the better for it being free, completely open and with not a single other visitor - it is in partial ruin but you're still able to wander around viewing the original paintings, mosaics and carvings. I'm struggling to remember the last time that I had to close the original wooden gates behind me
on a 14th century fort.
Our final day in Bundi coincided with Makar Sankranti (better known as the kite festival) to celebrate the end of winter, this basically involves the whole town climbing onto their roofs and flying kites from 5am to late at night. The kite flying is taken very seriously, to the point of using glass fibre in the line in an attempt to bring down other kites by cutting their lines. The boys of the guesthouse family were keen for me to have a go, so I did, but after seeing my attempts and in order to save the family's formidable kite flying reputation I was quickly relieved of my post.
We were pretty sad to leave Bundi but said our goodbyes on the evening of the festival to catch the bus to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. We managed to hire another motorbike here and spent a day riding a round trip through Samode, Ajitgarh, Amber and back to Jaipur. We passed through several remote villages until we found ourselves in Ajitgarh, stopping for a coffee we were soon the centre of attention but had a great time chatting with the locals through the
translations of the single English speaker. By the time we left the chai stall there was a crowd of around 60 people all waving us off. Even the local hard man chai seller was forced into a guilty smile when Rachel thanked him for the overpriced coffee, which prompted roars of laughter from the assembled crowd.
Pushkar was the next destination, not my favorite of the places we've visited, too much shopping and too many tourists. The towns popularity has grown up around the annual cattle and camel fair, held in November, when thousands of camel traders, pilgrims and tourists visit. It’s also a very holy place, surrounding a lake that holds great significance for Hindus attracting pilgrims year round. It's holiness is exploited a little when you're asked to receive a blessing by temple priests who then try and trick you into making large donations that probably never reach the temple, you eventually receive a red braid around your wrist - a "Pushkar Passport" - protecting you from "further donations". Pushkar is a strictly no alcohol town but true to form we found ourselves with a few beers after being guided to a restaurant that was willing to
serve by a friendly waiter...the occasion was to bid farewell to his, and our, good friend Ingo, who we had met in Bundi and was now fleeing the chilly nights of Rajasthan for the Goan sun. A very enjoyable afternoon blurred into the evening and ended with Rachel being asked to mind a local cake stall, complete with anti-cow baton - she tried her best but sales plummeted.
From Pushkar we moved on to Bikaner, rarely visited we'd heard that this town was an excellent place to set off on camel safaris. Our visit also coincided with the Bikaner desert festival - camel races, best old-age desert couple, Mr and Mrs desert competitions (we didn't win), best camel hairstyle (Rachel didn't win), tribal music and dance displays and the most obvious of desert weather...rain.
As arranged we met up again with a couple, Katerina and Gregory, who were in the same guest house as us in Bundi. We had grand ideas of making the camel safari journey from Bikaner to Jaisalmer but changed our minds when told that it was over 300km and 14 days, opting instead for a 7 day, 160km trip to a village called Khichan
half way to Jaisalmer and in the heart of the Thar Desert. While being driven to a small village to begin our trek we stopped off at Deshnoke, where the Karni Matar Mandir temple has some unusual residents. As in most temples in India you're not allowed to wear shoes, but you're less keen to go along with this when the temple is overrun with rats, thousands of them swarming around, and over, your feet - they're fed daily with milk to keep them within the temple in the belief that they are reincarnated relatives or saints.
So we then began our trek, from a small village four camels, two carts, three camel men, a guide and four tourists set off. Pain would be my overriding memory, the wood and brass camel saddles weren't constructed with a thought for the comfort of male riders, but that would be closely followed by the stunning scenery, unpolluted night skies, the friendly faces in remote villages, eating around open fires and sleeping in mud huts or tents. Ganesh, our guide, was a font of information on all things desert, his descriptions interspersed with "one minute, I tell you" (when we interrupted him)
or "no problem" (when our pathetic whimpers suggested we wanted no more camel torture...or dhal and rice). The third night saw us staying with the family of one of the camel men, we were offered two of their mud huts but thought it better to decline and take just one, as it would have meant his whole family staying in the single remaining hut. The evening was spent around the fire in our hut with Ganesh, members of the family and occasional, random neighbours entertaining us with traditional tribal and Rajasthani songs...our attempts to return the favour were met with polite (or baffled) smiles. The following day I stupidly decided that I'd spend the whole day in the saddle, my mount (who had been christened Jean-Pierre because we couldn't pronounce her Hindi name - the fact that she was female was also lost on us) was the only one that wasn't tethered to the cart, so I had free-reign. Not that it made much difference, it was clear that JP was unimpressed with my camelmanship as it was she who decided when I should dismount, leaving me to walk her by the reign for the last couple of kilometers. My
birthday was spent in the desert, Ganesh and his boys made a surprise halva desert to follow the dhal in the evening, as with all of the other meals it was delicious. If the truth be known we were all relieved to reach Khichan and the end of the trek, we were greeted with the sight of thousands of Siberian Cranes flocking around their winter home. We said our goodbyes and caught the next bus to Jaisalmer.
The town and citadel of Jaisalmer, constructed mainly of sandstone, blends perfectly with the surrounding Thar Desert. It's a truly medieval town with a real sense of atmosphere, the area around the citadel particularly so. We stayed here for four or five days, partly as recovery from the camel trek and partly because we were still with Katerina and Gregory...which meant hangovers every morning and complete inability to arrange onward travel.
Jodhpur was our next stop, we were considering pushing on without seeing this city, as we were both very ill, but are so glad we didn't. Dominating the city, Meherrangarh fort with its massive defences (the only ones in Rajasthan that remain un-breached) is hugely impressive, overrun with visitors but
Cake Stall Pushkar
Armed with anti-cow baton
with an excellent audio tour it seemed a world away from the fort at Bundi, although equally as fascinating. I couldn't work out though, and none of the guards seemed to know, why there was a first world war Howitzer gun bizarrely placed among the collection of 19th century cannons on the ramparts... We didn't get to see the Umaid Bhawan Palace, which looked vast when viewed from the fort, as our train ticket reservation meant we had to push on to Delhi.
So that was Rajasthan, truly a country within a country and surpassing all our expectations. Delhi next, hmmm...
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