Rolling into Rajasthan

(Emily) Our accommodation in Bikaner was really lovely and, most importantly, incredibly clean. The building itself was a restored haveli (traditional ornately decorated mansion) and attention to detail – such as beautifully painted ceilings in the corridors and rooms (each one different) and coloured glass lanterns – gave it a special ‘boutique’ feel. We liked the way they offered a range of rooms, from dorms to luxury suites ( we went for a simple double with a spotless bathroom) so that you could enjoy the experience of staying in a nice hotel without the price tag. By now we’d realised that in India, where you stay greatly affects your experience of the town you’re visiting – basically it’s inevitable that the streets will be strewn with litter and that you’ll spend your day dodging nomadic cows and pushy vendors so having a clean haven to retreat to is a top priority! This place also had a chilled out roof terrace and decent enough food which was a bonus. As soon as we arrived we took advantage of the great bathroom to wash our bike trousers, using the classic wear them into the shower method,  though they were so ingrained with grime that we never quite got to the point where the water ran clean!

Bikaner itself is a small town, the sights of which could easily be seen in just one day but we ended up staying several nights to take things in at a leisurely pace and just enjoy the atmosphere at the haveli. The fort – Junagarh – was well worth a visit for its intricate red sandstone carvings and highly decorated palatial rooms inside. The mughals certainly had a handle on impressive architecture.  Another grand building was Lalgarh Palace, built by Maharaja Ganga Singh in the early 1900s. We visited the adjoining museum which houses a carriage from the royal train and lots of paintings and photos of the Maharajas and their families over the years, complete with British counterparts. (We found the innumerable  photos of tiger hunts rather unpalatable; no wonder they are hardly any of the poor creatures left in this country…) The palace is now a hotel (we agreed that M&M would definitely stay here if they came to India!) so we didn’t have access to the inside but we were able to walk around the grounds, enjoying the peace and quiet and the rare occurrence of a vista untainted by piles of garbage. There were even a couple of peacocks strutting about the place – very regal!

One evening we went down the road to an internet place and, when paying in another room, saw that the walls were covered with miniature paintings for sale that the owner had created himself. We started to have a cursory look, encouraged by the fact that the guy hadn’t been touting the work, and decided to buy a couple of cards and something for the wall back home, all at a very reasonable price. The artist was actually painting while we looked around; a small picture of a tree which had countless individual leaves, each painstakingly drawn with his minute brush. Well,  I say countless but he did in fact keep track of every single one he added, writing the total in the bottom right corner – most were around the 4000 mark! He was a really nice guy so we were happy to give him business, especially when he further showed his honesty when we realised we actually had no money left in our wallet; we asked him to hold onto the pictures and we’d pick them up the next day but he insisted we take them, without leaving any sort of deposit (we were genuinely surprised at this gesture – most of the Indians we’d met seemed to want to get whatever they could out of you as soon as possible, with no such thing as something for nothing…) Just as we were walking back up the road, he came and caught up with us to ask if we could please make sure that the staff at the hotel didn’t see that we had bought anything from him. Why ever not? Apparently, they would go down and demand commission from this guy despite the fact that they’d had no involvement in the sale whatsoever, just because he worked in the same street. We said this was outrageous but he told us it was par for the course – he was just the little guy. The bloody cheek! And sure enough, back at the hotel the guy on reception plied us with questions about where we’d been, what shops we’d visited, if we’d bought anything etc. This sort of practice was something we came to hear about often and we think it’s really crappy. (James: The commission racket is, like it or not, standard operating procedure in India and 99% of hotels and ALL rickshaws/taxis run it. Most will try to take you to your destination via certain shops where they’ll get commission and unless you’ve become a somewhat hardened traveller (an innocent question asking  whether it’s your first time in India or how long you’ve been here is a great way of identifying how ‘green’ you are – our little adventure tends to shut them up!) you’ll go there as they’re very persistent and simply ignore your pleas to just go to your destination. They’ll also tell travellers that their chosen guesthouse is full, terrible etc and try to redirect them to one that they got an arrangement with – even bad mouthing those hostels or shops that shun the commission racket.)

We were in Bikaner on the back of recommendations from a few other travellers we’d met; the general consensus was that Jaisalmer (out to the far west of Rajasthan) was over-crowded and over-touristy whereas Bikaner offered a similar ‘desert town’ experience without the hype. And, ‘desert’ being one of its main characteristics, Bikaner also offered the chance of a camel ride – it had to be done, surely!! For James, it wasn’t exactly on his life to-do list (besides, he’d already done it back in the day in Namibia) but he indulged my whim and we looked into the possibilities. Even from my position as a novice, I could predict that the five or ten day camel tours would leave us with an empty wallet, sunburn and a very sore butt so we opted for a short ride at sunset just to give us a taster.  Ah, it was comedy! We got a rickshaw out of town to where two guys (boys, really) were waiting by the side of the road with two rather large looking camels – I don’t think they were an organised outfit, we’d arranged it through one of the receptionists and they were probably just his mates, but I was relieved to see that at least they had proper saddles. Without any preamble, they ushered us towards our camels (close up we realised that James’ was considerably bigger than mine!) and we clambered up into the seats. No English was spoken but we could understand the importance of holding on while the camel rose from sitting to standing. Even then, it was quite an alarming experience as you were pitched forwards then backwards (no health and safety briefing beforehand, of course!!) We started on our way before I’d really got my bearings (again, no checking that we were ready) and I have to say, I spent the first ten minutes in a bit of a state, much to James’ amusement! Whereas James’ camel was plodding along nicely, with James happily using both hands to snap away at me and even coolly changing his camera lens, I was holding on for dear life while my camel, clearly a moody adolescent, was repeatedly kicking itself, spitting and farting (James: at least Em says it was the camel!) its way along – charming! I did eventually settle into it (as did my ‘trusty steed’ – somewhat placated once he’d been given some leaves to munch on) and was able to enjoy this novel way to traverse the desert while the setting sun cast a warm glow on our surroundings. We were right to have chosen a short ride though – by the time we made our way back to the road an hour and a half later we were more than ready to dismount!

The whole amusing experience was topped off by an auto-rickshaw ride back to the hotel in the dark with no lights: not recommended!! He did actually pull into the side of the road to try and connect his headlights but to no avail (the fact that he wanted to use his lights but couldn’t was more unsettling than had he just thrown caution to the wind – clearly even he recognised the dangers of these crazy roads at night-time.) We had to go slowly and hope that we didn’t plough into the back of a cyclist or camel cart, also out on the road with no lights, or get hit by a truck. At one point we could make out a lot of activity up ahead where people where gathered by the side of the road at the entrance to what looked like some sort of ramshackle amusement park – bright lights, popcorn stalls outside etc. Only as we came alongside it did we realise that it was in fact a temple, trussed up to the nines with gaudy fairy lights and streamers and accessed through the garishly kitsch open mouth of a huge model tiger. Bizarre! I’m afraid we were already growing a bit cynical about the Hindu tendency toward tackiness on the temple front (nice bit of alliteration there!) and this did nothing to change our opinion. We made it back to the hotel in one piece where we were looking forward to a lovely massage – they had an in-house salon with a smiley local women offering her services. I went first and after the somewhat awkward experience of sitting in just my pants while I had my hair messed up (head massage apparently) and then feeling the masseur’s hand run just a tad too low while I had my back done, I advised James to give it a miss (he wasn’t that enthusiastic anyway)! We spent our last evening up on the rood chatting to a couple of backpackers and then enjoyed one last night’s sleep in our spotless room, planning to depart for Jodhpur – the ‘Blue City’ – the next morning.

7 Responses to “Rolling into Rajasthan”

  1. Suzanne says:

    Good times! Alliteration queen.
    Look forward to seeing the paintings when you’re back.
    Lots of love

  2. Jackson says:

    what does that mean! alliteration?
    i think James should sign up as advisor to Pakistan military!
    Well like the combined name thing.
    you two are now Janeg!

  3. julian says:

    Jackson has done the head massage thing for his back. See fbook entry!
    CU even sooner!!

  4. Jess says:

    So happy to see another couple of entries on the blog. And I love all the captions with your pics. You both look so happy and healthy xxxxx

  5. Mandy & Ru says:

    Thanks for all the updates – wonderful. Enjoy Jaipur, I loved it, so colourful. Rajasthan was my favourite part of India – are you going to get to Pushkar? If not planned, do try it is just wonderful… Love and hugs and keep the news coming
    Love from Ru, Mandy, Melissa, Howard and Isabelle

  6. Mama/Kate says:

    You two are such eloquent reporters. You write so vividly that I can imagine I am there – not that I would want to be!
    Actually, I remember a friend of ours eulogising about Rajasthan.

    Can’t wait to see you in Thailand!

    Love and kisses and mega-hugs.x

  7. Martha and Marcus says:

    Camel ride sounds fun – very ‘Sex and the City’, no? (What do you mean you didn’t have three changes of designer clothes for the occasion?) lots of love, got to go get that cold beer now…..

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