A desert fling - cycling through Rajasthan & Gujarat
I am sat on a dusty patch of ground in the Thar desert, my hands are black with chain oil and grease, my face is grimy, coated with dirt and sweat. In front of me a man looks back unflinching, studying this intruder upon his daily routine. His face is weathered, beaten and covered in deep wrinkles, souvenirs from a lifetime spent in the sun. His face is inquisitive but kindly. He is posing for a photograph.
I delight in finding myself in situations in which the language barrier can only be overcome with exaggerated gestures. The farmer points to his camels and I understand it to mean he wants me to come closer and stroke one. He then waves his hand to indicate we are to have a photo together.
Finally, he imitates the raising of a cup to his mouth. This can only mean one thing. As he begins to build the fire I grab my camera, determined to document the ritual.
Heat water and spices over your hand-built fire; Add milk, fresh from your camel herd; heat and repeatedly pour the tea from a height (‘pulling chai’); bring to a final boil; strain into small cardboard cups (‘cutting chai’).
It’s amazing how quickly an adventure, so far removed from your normal daily routine, descends into such routine and ’ritual’. In India, my rituals are water and tea. Water thankfully is easy to find and is the utmost necessity when cycling long days in temperatures over 30-degrees. Tea, meanwhile, takes a bit more finding. I’ve become a little preoccupied at times trying to find tea stalls at times so this unexpected offer as I neared Jaisalmer, out in the desert, was greatly received.
I find the simplicity of the ritualistic tea-making process incredibly satisfying. At first I was bemused by the tiny cups I was being given before learning that this was a ‘cut’ of chai, a half-size portion due to it being so strong, the strength of which comes from a very long boil and the ‘pulling’ process.
Sitting on that dusty patch of desert watching the weather-beaten farmer make me tea I was transfixed. Something he has done no doubt hundreds of times was to me, special. I winced at the thought of him sat on my kitchen stool in return, watching me dunking a Tetley teabag into a tepid cup of water. This was the most delicious cup of tea I’ve ever had in my life. I wondered if Sainsbury's sells Camel milk...
I imagined the camels behind me were similarly intrigued by this process, or maybe just by the intruder on their patch. They kept quiet regardless, far more restrained and less flamboyant than the last camel I had encountered just the previous day. That was Kallu, the dancing camel, and he was part of a surreal 12 hours at an inconspicuous roadside hotel.
"Just one drink?"
It's never just one though is it? It's always going to end up with you drinking three bottles of whiskey in a room full of people who speak little English, gorging on pappadum and salad, the ceiling covered in a layer smoke and the general manager banging on your door at 12.00am because he wants another drink with you.
Oh, and not forgetting a hungover camel ride the following morning.
Thinking back to some wild nights at university I am confident that this is how every one of my impromptu nights out ended.
Nearing sunset on a day of riding between Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, and with little sign of anywhere adequate to camp, I stumbled upon the Rang Mahal hotel. Only two months old, and still being constructed in some areas, the staff were out to impress. I left the following morning after a very memorable evening.
Pulling up on my bicycle led to four or five members of staff descending the hotel steps to surround me. I enquired about the price of a room, declined when I was told what it would be and was then offered a room anyway, based on my suggested budget. The manager took me on a brief tour of the site, pointing out the garden, playground and swimming pool that were not yet constructed but were “coming soon!”. I promised to return to sample those delights.
Round the back of the hotel, several people were taming an agitated camel and attaching a wooden flatbed wagon to its harness. The manager gestured to me and "would you like a ride?" is what I heard from his hand waving. I hopped on board as the rest of the staff took videos, ran alongside and joined me for tea at the top of the hill, where a very hospitable farmer made 10 cups for us all. It was one of the more awkward afternoon teas I have sat down at, with no one speaking English, everyone staring at me and a distinct lack of custard creams. But the farmer and his family were so delighted at my company I couldn’t help but beam back at them, laugh at what they were saying despite having no idea whether they were laughing at me and pose for a few photos.
I’d have been pretty satisfied if the evening ended there, and after eating in the 45 cover hotel restaurant, completely alone, I retired to my room to rest up.
Around 9 pm the manager returned and requested I come downstairs. His friend was visiting and he wanted to meet me - "Just one drink?"
“Of course!” - I assumed this would take half an hour max. But a few hours later I returned to my bed with my head swimming with the effects of India’s finest grain whiskey, lots of it. In the small room downstairs I was taken to, the entirety of the restaurant staff were crowded around a small table, smoking, drinking, eating and later, dancing, singing and snapping selfies and videos as we made our way through too many bottles.
I was swept up in this wave of singing, dancing and selfie-taking, forgetting I hadn’t drunk any more than “just one drink” since I left the UK. Waking the following morning I was surprised at just how awful I felt. I thought getting back on the bike as soon as possible would help clear the fog. The hotel staff had other ideas.
The previous night's camel wagon ride was clearly just a primer, and in the morning I was treated to a proper ride! The camel was named Kallu and will become a paid attraction for the hotel when the building is completed. I was given a prelude to the attraction for free before I left. A long walk around the yard behind the hotel, watching the dancing routine for which this particular camel is famous and posing outside the front of the hotel with Kallu’s handler and my bicycle.
I realised the stability, luggage capacity and reliability of my bicycle were mirrored in this camel, and briefly wondered whether to continue my journey upon the camel’s saddle rather than my bike’s. I settled for naming my bicycle after Kallu, having struggled to come up with an adequate name for the last 6 months. I later discovered ‘Kallu’ means ‘free man’ in Hindi.
Aside from these camel encounters I’ve also been exploring some beautiful cities during my time riding through Rajasthan, cities full of more colour and contrasts than I can mention. But I'll try my best.
Jaipur - The pink city
After a three day cycle from Delhi, I was back into the thrust of a big city. Jaipur is significantly smaller than the concrete sprawl of Delhi but feels far more spacious. The streets are wider, the traffic slightly less oh-my-word-this-is-absolutely-insane. Named the pink city for its abundance of red sandstone, which now the trademark colour of Rajasthan’s capital.
On my first day in Jaipur, I managed to tick off two Indian ‘bucket-list’ items that I hadn’t really planned to see. Taking a rickshaw north to the mighty Amber Fort, the former royal residence that towers over the old city of Jaipur, I was almost immediately faced with a snake charmer and an elephant. Tick. Tick.
As the crowd grew around the snake charmer an invisible barrier seemed to take shape, keeping everyone a couple of metres away from the reach of the Cobra, slowly and deliberately swaying its head. This barrier of trepidation and fear was justified in my opinion, but one young girl clearly thought the crowd were being unnecessarily wary. She skipped around the music player, humming along to his tune, climbing onto the adjacent wall and peering over his shoulder, every closer to the steadily rising snake. Next time I encounter a Cobra I’ll take cues from this little girl, and sneak up behind it while the tourists are staring it down with jittery teeth.
I was far happier and much more comfortable having to jump out of the way of an elephant thundering down the walkway to collect its next set of paying passengers than facing down the snake. I declined the opportunity of an elephant ride, preferring to walk the many ramps and steps up to the fort. I’m still not sure how I feel about this kind of tourism, and I hope the next time I see an elephant it is in the wild, and it is not about to stomp over me. Thinking this makes me feel a bit hypocritical for jumping up on that camel, and I haven’t quite worked out how to get around that yet.
I found more wildlife at the Nahargarh Fort which stands over ‘new’ Jaipur. My time in the Amber Fort was a bit lacklustre, I felt it was overpriced and overcrowded despite the impressive views of sweeping hills and the old city. Nahargarh Fort, on the other hand, was a delight. Flaking yellow paint adorned the small fort, covering its labyrinthine hallways, with windows, doors and walkways heading off in different directions and never really going anywhere in particular.
Atop the fort in the late evening, I watched the sun burn its way over the horizon, giving new meaning to the name ‘Pink City’. Often the smog and pollution that hangs over cities, and that has often found me coughing and spluttering when cycling here, can cast the suns rays in more vibrant and impressive shades. Here in Jaipur, I was, for the first time, grateful for it.
Under the sunset several packs of monkeys were running across the rooftops, playing up to the tourists and infuriating the guards, who waved their hands, banged their sticks and slapped their foreheads in frustration.
I visited a few other spots in Jaipur, but none were as memorable as the few hours spent up on the walls of Nahargarh Fort in the company of excited monkeys and sighing guards.
Pushing onto Pushkar
Out of Jaipur and into more rural Rajasthan I planned to wild camp after a steady day of cycling. By midday, I’d ridden through almost 70kms and pressed on, realising I could make Pushkar by sunset, a further 80kms away.
The ride to Pushkar was fast and furious, the first time in India I’d been swept along by a tailwind, and on flat roads I made 150km with ease. The further into Rajasthan I found myself the dustier the roads became, more sand, less green, more peace, less chaos... almost.
As the sun was dipping below the horizon a similar orange glow was appearing ahead of me, this one, however, was capped by a towering column of black smoke. What appeared to be a car crash had led to some sort of explosion. I could see flames flickering over the rooftops of cars ahead of me. And as the traffic come to a standstill hundreds, and I mean hundreds, of people, began descending on the evolving scene. Much like how a crowd seems to dissolve into view around me whenever I stop at the roadside, the fire acted as a beacon to passersby, drawing them into a cauldron of shouting, arm waving and that fierce heat given off by the flames.
As I cycled around the melee I wondered how on earth a fire service would be able to get to the scene. The answer was that they would not - the masses were already forming human chains to pass buckets of water from local stores onto the highway and over to the fire. No emergency service required.
I’d seen this before only hours earlier, that coming together of strangers to help a seemingly drastic situation. On the road to Pushkar, I had cycled past a huge lorry, overturned and lying in a ditch. Ahead of me were a trail of parked cars and lorries who had stopped to help. The drivers were busy lashing ropes to every bit of exposed metal on the stricken lorry, as well as a JCB digger, to help right the truck and send it on its way. Where the rope and the JCB came from I have no idea, but I’ve been here long enough to know just how resourceful people can be! The mentality to just get stuck in and solve problems practically as they occur is admirable.
Pushkar itself was like an oasis in comparison to these busy scenes. At its centre Pushkar lake, a piercing blue in the dull grey and yellow walls of the town. I took a walk down to the water in the morning and was set upon by people eager to ‘enhance my visit’. I was taken through a history of the town, of the ghats that lined its lake and a Hindu prayer ceremony that culminated with me paying for the privilege of praying for my family. I was asked to pay a fee ‘per person’ to be included in my prayer, slightly annoyed I had been led into this - frankly, I should have seen it coming. However, on this occasion, I wasn't too displeased to part with my cash, which would help the upkeep of the ghats and support local families. I declined to say a prayer for myself, I've gotten this far without divine intervention and needed to save some cash for the bare essentials - water, tea and bananas, obviously.
That day I pushed on in the direction of Jodhpur, taking a route away from the national highway and passing through countless villages full of excitable kids who would tear after me. I regret not getting a photo or video of this, the image of 20 children running after me down a rutted mud road was pretty hilarious.
I’m often set on by kids who have evidently not seen anything like a sunburnt Brit on a heavily laden touring bike pass through their town. Some of them spot me from so far off I'm convinced they have eyes like hawks, and they run towards me for hundreds of metres away to get a better view.
I decided to wild camp that evening just outside one of these villages, finding a nice patch of scrubland with sufficiently high bushes to obscure my tent. I fell asleep to the sound of pounding dance music bizarrely playing from passing tractors. I woke to a bit of a disaster.
ALL OF THE PUNCTURES
That beautiful patch of scrubland turned out to be full of thorn bushes, with needles the size of nails and just as strong. I found my front tyre flat when I got out of my tent, realising I’d ridden into a veritable minefield and was lucky only one tyre was flat.
About an hour down the road, however, my luck ran out. My back tyre had deflated to a pitiful state. I discovered four thorns embedded in it and spent an hour and a half repairing four punctures in the inner tube. This is the same innertube that suffered a lot in Europe, and now sports around 12 repairs! (Hang in there!)
That evening I was due to stay at a temple just outside Jodhpur that had been organised for me by Neeraj, who I had met at a Homestay in Delhi. Wanting to arrive before sunset, and delayed by five punctures that morning I took a shortcut towards the temple, away from the snaking main road.
Sometimes, sadly, taking the shortcut is not advisable. On that stretch of back road (similar to a British B-road), I found my way blocked by a distinct lack of road. This road was still being built and where the tarmac stopped began a 2 kilometre stretch of rubble, rocks and absolutely no cycle-friendly road surface in sight. To this point, the most irritating thing I have found on my cycle journey was trying to push my bike along a beach in Scotland at Loch Laggan and being infuriated at the impossibility of it. Now I can attest to the fact that pushing a 40-50 kilo touring bike over what essentially amounted to the result of a quarry blast is absolutely not 'dynamite'.
I’ll add to that list speed humps - which jarringly test on a daily basis my resolve to not swear and my bicycle's ability not to capitulate.
I did make it to the temple eventually, and met Bhai Krishan who would be looking after me during my stay. During a brief tour in the dark I could make out the ornate marble carvings making up then temple pillars and walls, and spotted scaffolding and huge chunks of new marble that were to be made into new structures.
We walked to the food hall where I was the only patron thanks to my late arrival. A thali was thrust upon me – lined with things that smelled incredible but that I could not name. Chapatis were placed upon my plate with such regularity I lost count, but it was somewhere approaching ten. I said no to more rice and dal only to find my pots filled up and revelled in the ‘all you can eat’ offerings. I slept so deeply after that I missed breakfast.
I spent my day off repairing the two spare tubes which had suffered so many punctures. As with any bike maintenance or repairs I was offered both helping hands and keen spectators. I strolled around the temple grounds, taking in the prayers and song, as well as the sounds of angle-grinders and saws carving into the large chunks of marble, and the tink-tink-tink of hammer and chisel, fine-tuning the work of the less delicate machinery.
I had two more Thali devouring sessions that day, this time as part of large crowds of worshipers who had gathered in the food hall. The service was no less attentive, and I left just as satisfied as the previous evening on both occasions.
During my two day stay there I was not required to pay for anything, nor did I want for food, drink or good conversation. I knew no one and had only been referred by the brother of a friend of Krishan, the head priest at the temple. Yet I was treated like a brother, and despite being very much out of place amongst the worshipers I felt very much part of the community for my brief time there. It was really a fantastic detour to make and has given me renewed determination to just say yes to as many offers as I possibly can in future.
Jodhpur - The blue city
I pedalled into Jodhpur the following morning where I took a couple of days off the bike to soak up some sun on the many roof terraces that just out above the streets. I stayed below the mighty Mehrangarh Fort that towers over the intricate network of alleyways and channels, between the houses and havelis that were almost falling over each other in the crush of concrete.
Jodhpur invited me into its snakelike haveli-lined streets, challenging me with roadblocks in the form of bulls, ditches and crazed motorcyclists. I was headbutted by a cow I got to close too, but largely managed to navigate the maze unscathed.
On one afternoon I managed to negotiate a ride on a local's beaten up city bike, lacking a saddle but standing proudly in bright orange against the wall. He wished me to compare it to my “very nice UK cycle” so I took it for a spin around the local market, impressed at its ability to put a smile on my face despite being unable to sit down.
The Blue city is named so because of the blue pigment on many of the houses, once used to indicate the residences of Brahmins (priests) but now a badge of honour for many who reside in the city. To fully appreciate the colour you need to climb high above the city, atop the walls of the fort and gaze down upon the houses mirroring the perfect blue sky above. It’s easy to see why Jodhpur is considered a jewel in Rajasthan’s crown. But it is not the only one.
Jaisalmer - The golden city
Heading now into the Thar desert I was being stopped more and more often my motorists wondering why I was cycling all the way out here. Following the aforementioned encounters with camels cycling out of Jodhpur, I met a carload of Indian tourists on their way to a Jaisalmer, the Golden City.
On the roadside, they pulled up ahead of me and got out, 4 adults who were so ecstatic to see me cycling. “I just saw you and it made me happy” is something I’ve heard on several occasions now, and I always feel slightly humbled and proud when locals say to me that they appreciate how I have chosen to explore India on a bicycle. This particular roadside meeting left me with a pannier full of nuts, dried fruit and salty snacks that they had brought with them for their car journey, but that they kindly determined would be better off serving me on my bike ride into Jaisalmer. Bloody lovely people!
As was becoming a theme now, the city of a Jaisalmer was overseen by a huge walled fort, but unlike Jaipur and Jodhpur where the interiors were catering to tourists and tour groups, the fort atop the hill in the centre of Jaisalmer was actually where the heart of the city lay.
After discovering that the hotel I had booked over Christmas was inside this fort I trudged up the cobbled streets and narrow alleys, my cleated shoes slipping on cobblestones worn smooth by centuries of prior footsteps. The next day I slipped again my way down them, wearing sandals this time, and providing some entertainment for surer-footed tourists.
On those cobbled streets I met Kamal, a shop owner who had been flogging journals, carvings and jewellery for 30 years. We spoke briefly every day, for four days, about his business, sipping tea and discussing how the city had changed over the years. There used to be only one or two stores, now the majority of doorways cater to tourists, and most of those tourists were from India rather than abroad. He hated the holiday period when the city exploded with visitors, but relied on the trade their presence brought. It seems to be the case everywhere I have been.
I had a slightly less traditional Christmas Day while in Jaisalmer, eating curry in 30-degree heat with not a trace of Christmas in the town. It largely passed me by, having not felt any of the usual build up and thankfully not hearing any of the songs that usually make my brain hurt around early December. The distinct lack of festivities was useful in a way, as it took my mind off the tradition and turkey I was missing out on. It turned out to be just another day. I used it instead to plan my next moves, which were rudely messed up by technology.
I mentioned in my previous post the temperamental nature of ATMs. Leaving Jaisalmer after unsuccessfully trying 5 cash machines during my stay I headed south-east towards Bãrmer. The following few days I tried a series of further ATMs to no avail. I had found myself in a situation where none of the four banks cards I possessed would yield me cash, and later found out three of them had been frozen and the fourth was victim to the whims of flaky cash machines.
All this led to a decision to avoid the more remote areas of Gujarat, the next state I had passed into after Rajasthan, and to head more towards civilisation, through the historic cities off Patan and Ahmedabad. I had hoped it would still be remote enough to get back into a routine of wild camping...
The beacons! The beacons are lit!
The trouble with wild camping in India is people. There are people everywhere. Absolutely, impossibly, unfathomably everywhere. Behind bushes, down dirt roads, behind every wall and round every corner, in every field and each innocent empty looking bit of desert, there are people. This can often be a blessing, as it reminds me I’m never too far from the next opportunity to fill up on water and chai or to speak to interested locals and have gesture conversations with excited kids.
But when trying to find a secluded spot to camp it is a slight issue. On numerous occasions, I have begun to set up camp only to look up and see 10 people in my immediate vicinity and realise I'm actually in a village. On one occasion I was so sure I was alone I began stripping off, out of my sweaty clothes. On the next inspection, I counted 20 people within my line of sight, a couple of whom were shouting to others - presumably saying "look at those awful tan lines!". On occasions when I am all set up and ready to rest I find a crowd is gathering around me, and I am wary of going to sleep with all of my belongings out on the ground.
The day I crossed over from Rajasthan into Gujarat I left a town called Bãrmer and had planned to camp 80km down the road. Around 4 pm I began searching for a camping spot and for two hours I failed miserably - being stubborn and sticking to the main road was my downfall here. I managed to book a hotel in the next town, Sanchore, and rode into the night, eventually arriving at 9 pm.
Cycling by night gave me an opportunity to witness something unexpected, and special. As the light faded and I was searching google maps for a place to stay I noticed flickering lights in the field below me. A fire had just been lit and several people had gathered around it. I gazed out along the expanse of farmland and desert, and slowly more fires were popping up, sometimes forming a row of orange lights all the way to the horizon. The flames flickering with a similar temperament to the strip lighting in the hotel room I later found myself in. I found myself laughing and being reminded of a sweeping aerial scene in Lord of the Rings when huge beacons are lit on top of mountains in succession. I muttered to myself “the beacons, the beacons are lit!”.
I realised this was all the warmth the farmers and their families would have through the cold nights in the desert and felt a pang of guilt as I cycled towards my next hotel stay. But I felt it appropriate not to disturb them by trying to camp nearby.
This drama with wild camping has led to regular use of roadside hotels, which are cheap, comfortable and come within insanely good food. In many ways, I feel like I’m cheating, but I am not breaking my budget and am enjoying the interaction with the hotel staff everywhere I go, as is often the case I am a novelty.
A final few random happenings
After leaving Jaisalmer I passed through Bãrmer, out of Rajasthan and into Gujarat. I began a long ride south, changing my plans to head further into the desert I headed for Ahmedabad and have since worked my way through a number of smaller towns and cities - Bãrmer, Patan, Vadodara, Ankleshwar and Surat - before reaching Mumbai. My time in Gujarat has been a blur, save for realising the increasing greenery and disappearing desert. I got my head down and made good progress towards Mumbai, not going out of my way to take photos. A few things worth mentioning occurred during this stretch though - including dirty laundry, a filthy bike and almost losing my passport.
Such is the scale of grime that accumulates on me from one day of cycling that I’ve taken to rinsing my clothes out almost daily. I am always astounded at the colour of the water after doing so, and slightly revolted, so I decided to document it. Laundry day looks something like this:-
During my day off in Patan, I came across two of the most spectacular sights I’ve seen in India so far. The first was Rani Ki Vav, probably the most impressive and intricate stepwell in the country:
The second - watching a crowd of 5 guys try and organise a tea run for me while I was sat on a park bench, with one absolute trooper heading off on his motorcycle and returning with a plastic bag full of tea, (the type of bag you might carry a goldfish in), and 6 plastic cups, (the type you’d find at your dentist). I say this is spectacular because it was the clearest evidence yet that tea is of vital importance not just for quenching thirst but for bridging language barriers and easing social tension. I was apprehensive at first at this group approaching and speaking Gujarati at me, laughing with each other. As soon as one said "chai?" I felt at ease:
Heading into the city of Surat, I was looking forward to doing some bike maintenance after a few days of jumping gears and looking at a steadily increasing layer of black sludge on my components. Stopping at a roadside cycle store to inquire about some new parts I needed I was surprised to return to my bike to find it being taken apart and cleaned. I didn't ask for this but am very glad I didn’t have to deal with the mess myself. I was very apologetic to the attendant that spent 90 minutes cleaning my chain, derailleur, cassette and front set:
The day after leaving Surat I realised I had left my passport at my previous hotel stay, 60km back up the road. This had a silver lining, as I was able to strip off all my luggage from the bike and spend a day doing a 120km round trip to retrieve it, delighting in the speeds I could achieve when not weighed down by my panniers!
Finally, I met a very friendly cow:
I thought it was interesting at least
I slightly regret not taking my camera out more often during my time in Gujarat. I am however grateful for the time to reflect on a crazy few weeks in Rajasthan in which I took a bucket load of shots, my favourite being this portrait of my new favourite camel farmer, which is now also immortalised in an impressive pastel drawing by my Uncle.
Where am I now?
Last weekend I ran the Mumbai marathon and tomorrow will begin cycling again from Pune, south towards Goa.