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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.