Jaisalmer and the Great Indian Desert

We really liked Jaisalmer and I know why: it is small, it is clean, the sandstone architecture inside and outside the fort is stunning and it has a German bakery. Over the past days we’ve been dreaming a lot about food, even Johan. About Schnitzel, about my mother’s meat balls, about Johan’s mothers ‘boerenkool’ and ‘zuurkool met spek en worst’, about my aunties chicken with red cabbage, about cheese cakes, about real German pretzels, about bread with Dutch cheese. I know, our food dreams become very meaty – even mine – as we are in vegetarian Rajasthan and are hardly eating any meat anymore. And then we found this German bakery, fulfilling parts of our dreams: we ate delicious apple pies, cinnamon rolls, cheese sandwiches, nut cakes and bought brown bread for the coming days on the road. Yummy, yummy, yummy, yummy.

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‘Villagers dressed in voluminous red and orange turbans still outnumber foreigners in the bazaar, while the exquisite sandstone architecture of the “Golden City” is quite unlike anything else in India’ is the description of the rough guide, which couldn’t be more true and we are now afraid that we’ve already seen the best of India. Jaisalmer grew rich in the 16th century when the overland silk route between Delhi and Central Asia made it an important entrepôt for goods such as silk, opium and spices. Nowadays Jaisalmer is a major military outpost protecting the Indo-Pakistani border following the wars of 1965, which we noticed on our way to and from Jaisalmer, as the highways  were highly frequented by military convoys, flanked by military stations and overflown by fighting helicopters.

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Two thousand people still live in the Jaisalmer fort. To enter the fort you have to pass four huge gateways, each of them flanked by jewellery, carpet, instrument and other sellers.

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Most impressive are the seven Jain temples inside the fort, connected by small corridors and stairways, which were built between the 12th and 15th centuries. (Jainism is a minority religion in India with the core principle of non-violence. Jains also believe in reincarnation). 

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Are they worshipping Barbapapa?

Are they worshipping Barbapapa?

We also visited the Gadi Sagar Tank, a peaceful lake with sandstone ghats (steps leading to water) and temples staring out at the desert.

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What we didn’t like though were the many people spoiled by tourists. We noticed a difference already on our way to Jaisalmer, when we got pestered by children along the road aggressively asking for money or school pens. And these children didn’t really look poor, they were nicely dressed in school uniforms. Once they even made me stop and tried to pull off things from the back of my bike when I tried to continue cycling. They only stopped when I started yelling at them. Shortly before arriving in Jaisalmer we got annoyed by touts trying to convince us to stay in one of their hotels or go with them on a camel safari. When we stayed at the camp between Bikaner and Jaisalmer the owner warned us about a few villages on the way and told us not to stay there because of ‘naughty people’ (his words). And he was true, even though I didn’t want to believe it, but people were aggressive in the way they approached us, were yelling at us and I didn’t feel at ease cycling alone anymore with Johan far ahead as once a tractor stopped a few meters in front of me and three men jumped off to stop me. Thankfully they let me continue cycling, but as of then Johan stayed close to me.

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Jaisalmer is not only beautiful, the city also has great sales people and even though we didn’t want to buy anything, we couldn’t resist and got ourselves another Christmas present: a beautiful patchwork blanket with an elephant for our bed in our future home. By now it should be on a vessel on its way to Empfingen. And we bought some more shawls, one each, so Johan can wear a Turban and I am warm in the chilly evenings.

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And as we are invited to a wedding at the end of January and our sneakers or embarrassing sandals are certainly not appropriate Johan bought himself beautiful Rajasthani shoes. When we entered the shop the first thing the sales boy said to us was ‘make your bottoms happy’, a nice way to ask someone to sit down.

As I had a bad cough we decided to stay one day longer in town for me to be able to recover. I spent a lot of time on our hotel’s roof terrace overlooking the fort and the city and enjoyed one after the other lemon/ginger/honey tea. You should try that as well, it is absolutely delicious and healthy on top, and definitely better against a cold than hot milk with honey ;-). After a couple of days and maybe 20 teas the waiter who was serving us since our arrival asked us before dinner what we would like to drink. I looked at him and asked: “Guess, what I will take tonight?”, and he looked at us, thought a bit and answered: “Beer?” No, we said, try again: “Whiskey? Vodka?” He clearly didn’t get us and was puzzled when we couldn’t stop laughing.

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Despite my coughing didn’t really improve (especially at night) we decided to leave Jaisalmer on Thursday, we were keen on hitting the road again. Our first destination was Ludova, the former capital of Rajasthan, in the Great Indian desert. While there wasn’t much to see anymore, we still enjoyed our ride through the desert as the landscape had changed and with it the vegetation: we spotted for the first time cactuses. Very nice.

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Cycling that day went great and we ended up in Khuri, a small desert village where we wild camped the second time below some sand dunes. Very romantic and this time we could see the stars and I slept through for the first time without coughing.

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For the next four days we continued cycling through the desert on the back roads and very much enjoyed the changing landscape and its wildlife. Despite the many goats, sheep and cows we spotted antelopes, a lot of peacocks and some other birds we don’t know the names of and thankfully no snakes (even though temperatures still climb over 30 degrees Celsius during the day it is too cold for them to show up, and we don’t miss that experience, cobras and vipers are not our favorite animals).

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The going was tough as we often faced headwinds and undulating roads, the desert definitely isn’t flat at all. And if you think the word deserted derives from desert, this surely isn’t the case in India. Wherever we chose to rest, within a few minutes there were people around us, not 50 or 100 as in other villages but up to 10 at times. As they couldn’t speak a single word English they would just stare at us and watch how we prepare lunch.

We again chose a very remote route tourists usually don’t take, hence there were neither hotels nor guesthouses on our way to Jodhpur and we again enjoyed Indian hospitality at a farmhouse and a school, and wild camped another night next to the national highway (a lousy choice, but as we were very late, we couldn’t be picky). The school experience was quite funny, we slept in a classroom and ‘showered’ in another classroom, as there were no bathrooms. It wasn’t only funny but also intimidating for us to see how primitive classrooms are on the countryside. The children sit on the floor on blankets, there is one plastic chair for the teacher and a blackboard. The walls are covered with a few different gods, some drawings, that’s it, all in all a very depressing room.

Our camp in the classroom

Our camp in the classroom

 

The peacock feathers are a farewell present from the farmer's kids we stayed at

The peacock feathers are a farewell present from the farmer’s kids we stayed at

Five days later on December 24 and some four hundred kilometers farther we arrived in Jodhpur. It didn’t start off well, as a rickshaw driver hit my bike while I was standing next to the road and one of my panniers fell off. Johan got upset as the driver didn’t even stop to apologize and followed the coward furiously while I had to unload the bike to be able to fix the pannier again – thankfully nothing broke and hopefully our upcoming experiences in the blue city with the most impressive fort will be better than that.

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Seasonal greetings

Merry Christmas to all our dear followers and thank you very much for reading our blog from Johan and Bärbel! We are wishing you all the best for the upcoming holidays and may all your wishes come true. Hope to see you/hear from you soon again.

Frohe Weihnachten an all unsere treuen Leser und erholsame Feiertage wünschen Euch Johan und Bärbel. Auf dass sich all eure Wünsche erfüllen mögen. Vielen Dank, dass ihr uns in den letzten Monaten über den Blog  begleitet habt und wir hoffen, euch bald wieder zu sehen oder von euch zu hören.

Vanuit een warm en zonnig Rajasthan wensen wij alle trouwe lezers van ons blog prettige kerstdagen. Bedankt voor jullie leuke reacties en aanmoedigingen en wij hopen ook in het nieuwe jaar weer van jullie te horen.

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Desert life

December 8 – 16, 2012 – Having arrived in Bikaner, the desert town, we enjoyed the luxury of our regained privacy in a cosy guesthouse, free WiFi and the company of some other world travelers.

Other than the impressive Junagarh Fort built in the late 16th century and the atmospheric old city there is not much to do or see in Bikaner and we spent a lot of time with our personal admin, laundry and regaining some energy. Most people go on camel safaris from here, but as we have our own steel camels that are much more comfy we decided to miss this one out.

Janagarh Fort

Junagarh Fort

In the fort

In the fort

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Some hovels

Some havelis

Need some spare parts?

Need some spare parts?

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What an organized man in chaotic India! Pay special attention to the peas....

What an organized man in chaotic India! Pay special attention to the peas….

Express Chilli

Express Chilli

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Curious?

Curious?

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Our next destination was Jaisalmer, about 330 km from Bikaner and for us four cycling days away (we wanted to make it in three days, but you’ll shortly know why we didn’t manage). We took a detour via Deshnok to see the world-famous rat temple. We had long discussions if it was worth going there and interviewed other tourists, the guesthouse manager and finally concluded we wanted to go there as well.

Leaving Bikaner

Leaving Bikaner

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Devotees believe that rats are reincarnated souls saved from the wrath of Zama, the god of death. Pilgrims bring offerings for the rats to eat inside the main shrine and it is considered auspicious to eat the leftovers after they’ve been nibbled by the rats. Honestly, it was a real disgusting experience. Worshippers were sitting and laying on the filthy ground and rats crawled over them, thousands of rats were running through the temple, dead rats were laying everywhere and I had to leave after a few minutes because I just couldn’t stand it anymore (sorry Volker ;)). Waiting outside made me muse once more about this awkward religion where they worship all kinds of different animals and hundreds of different gods.

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Moving on from Deshnok we noticed that we had to go back 10 kilometers since the road on our map didn’t exist. We were now on our way through the desert and no longer on the National Highway but on small roads, and we noticed soon that we couldn’t make much progress and that our big scale map was of no use here, at least about the distances. A lot of times we had to push our bikes due to the sand on the roads and there were many more non-existing roads indicated on our map.

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By dusk we were in the middle of nowhere and decided to pitch our tent in the desert behind some sand dunes. It’s been the most beautiful camp spot so far, but unfortunately the night was cloudy and we couldn’t see the stars.

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The following day we rose early at 5.30 am to make a few more kilometers than the day before. It was wise to do so, because instead of cycling 20km on the small desert road we rode 40km (stupid map again) and pushed our bikes many times through the heavy sand. By the time we reached the National Highway we had strong headwinds and often cycled below 10 km/h. At around 3 pm a heavy sandstorm hit us followed by 30 minutes of rain, in one of the driest deserts in the world!!!! Thankfully we stopped at a small roadside restaurant right before for lunch. Since we could only continue at 4pm we again needed to stay in a village as the next town with a guesthouse was too far away. Lucky as we are we could stay at a school with three hospitable teachers, Johan enjoyed Indian rum once again, but only after a few drops were poured over the rat god and we were treated to a nice Indian meal. Wonderful people once again!

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Rain brings fog and heavy rain brings heavy fog. The next two days we cycled through the fog and wouldn’t see the sun anymore much to our annoyance since every break we almost froze to death and wouldn’t get warm anymore. The first day we stopped at lunch at a camp recommended by our guesthouse manager in Bikaner. Another great experience, we could sleep for 200 INR (2.85 EUR) on our mattresses in the restaurant, enjoyed a jeep safari (where we got frozen once again) to see migratory cranes at a small lake nearby and had great Indian food at the camp fire with the owner.

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The following foggy day would bring us to Pokaran which became famous in 1998 when three massive nuclear explosions were detonated beneath the sands of the Thar Desert, announcing India’s arrival as one of the world’s fully-fledged atomic powers. The town itself is very depressing and the few hotels charge unreasonable prices for small rooms. One of the surprisingly fully booked hotels let us pitch our tent in the garden next to the very busy highway (it is mainly frequented by hundreds and hundreds of army trucks, jeeps and other military vehicles).

Celebrating our 4,000 cycled kilometers!

Celebrating our 4,000 cycled kilometers!

We reached Jaisalmer on a sunny Sunday, the sky cleared up by around 10am and made us smile again. We rode on perfect and slightly undulating roads almost 110 km west with some help of the wind and two pairs of strong legs. Shortly before the city Johan raised some doubts and fears we wouldn’t like Jaisalmer given the amount of tourists we saw during the day overtaking us in nice, fast and white cars with drivers speeding through the desert. But his fears proved to be wrong. Jaisalmer, also called the golden city because it is completely made from yellow Jurassic sandstone, is the most beautiful city we’ve seen so far and we stayed in a nice little hotel (for 450 INR or 6.40 EUR per night) with a roof terrace facing the golden fort. We’ve been once more in heaven.

Rajasthan’s heritage

After a sound sleep in a comfy bed we woke early to make a bike roundtrip to see some interesting villages advised by our hotel manager, who also happens to be an artist, furniture designer and registered tourist guide for Rajasthan.

A beautiful room misused for some laundry drying

A beautiful room misused for some laundry drying

Rajasthan is known for its extravagant palaces, forts and finely carved temples and its strong adherence to tradition which makes this part of India the most exotic for tourists. The landscape ranges from hilly areas around Mount Abu in the northeast to the fertile Dhundar basin and the shifting sands of the mighty Thar Desert, one of the driest places on earth.

On our way to Churu we passed through Shekhawati, an undulating semi-desert dotted with endless khejri trees, the state tree of Rajasthan, and isolated houses enclosed in stockades of thorn. The tree is also called the golden tree and it plays a vital role in preserving the ecosystem of arid and semi-arid areas. Since all parts of the tree are useful it is also known as the ‘king of the desert’ or the ‘wonder tree’. Shekhawati once lay on an important caravan route connecting Delhi and Sind (now Pakistan) with the Gujarati coast, before the rise of Bombay and Calcutta diverted the trans-Thar trade south and eastwards.

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Shekhawati’s merchants spent their fortunes competing with one another to build the grand, ostentatiously decorated havelis which still line the streets of the region’s dusty little towns. Havelis are private mansions usually with historical and architectural significance.

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We spent a great day visiting old havelis with beautiful wall paintings built between 1860 and 1915, 200-year old temples and cycled through the semi-desert between villages. The majority of the havelis are still privately owned and unfortunately most of the very rich owners don’t live there anymore, hence the havelis are not well maintained and preserved and some of them are in a terrible state of negligence. Often they consider to just break them down and build a modern flat or shopping mall. That’s the other side of beautiful India. Not many Indians care a lot about their heritage.

Old temple in Ramgash

Old temple in Ramgash

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The next day it was time again for us to move on to our next destination Bikaner, a famous Thar Desert town. It would take us two days to get there, given it is 180km away from Churu, the town we stayed the nights before. Again, unspectacular cycling with beautiful views onto the semi-desert and free accommodation the first night, this time at a temple.

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It’s been once more an easy task to find a place to sleep. We stopped at a small village, just before Bigga and asked some farmers for a place to sleep. After a few misunderstandings and a lot of forth and back which usually takes about 15 minutes they guided us to the close-by temple where we got a room to sleep, cold water to wash ourselves and 20 children to accompany us for the rest of the day, as of sunrise and until we rode off again the following morning.

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