Sunday, December 16, 2012

Achhi Baat Hai

A road trip in Rajasthan, in winters, had been on my mind ever since I started travelling independently. It took a while, but I was pleasantly surprised by how easily this trip worked out. I didn't see any reason in letting earned leaves lapse, and so I decided to take off in the first week of December. Shantanu warned me that Rajasthan is not the safest place around. As a result, I had to seek company and defer my solo trip idea for a little bit longer. I asked a few people, and Vidha agreed. I did not bother asking anyone after that - 'two girls' is no longer scary/adventurous. 
I did not have too much time to plan this one, but reading about the Desert Triangle got me excited. We only spent some time figuring the budget and affordable places to stay in each city. And then while running some random searches I landed upon this picture. Excitement levels rose a couple of notches. I even made it my wallpaper on the office laptop. :D  

Source: Google
The plan was to take a train to Bikaner, take the road to Jaisalmer and Jodhpur and then take the train back to Delhi. But we did not get tickets from Jodhpur, so we decided to go to Jaipur instead and then take the train from there. 

With all handovers done, we were ready to set out on the morning of 5th December. 

My research did tell us though that all forts and palaces have rather annoying timings. They open at 10 am and shut by 4:30 or 5:00 pm. It is such a waste of time! I remember being upset about it in Jaipur last summer

So, on day 1, we were to reach Bikaner by 3:15 pm. That meant running to the hotel and just about managing to get entry into one such place. We chose Junagarh Fort and got in there by 4:00 pm. The Fort was nice, but I have certainly seen better places by now. 

I must mention here that I saw the sun rise and set almost every day through the entire week. And it goes without saying that it kept the holiday happiness at the highest level. 

Sunrise in Delhi
At Junagarh Fort

Atop the Fort

Bikaner, in general, was a rather dirty city. One of the dirtiest I have ever been to. Over the next few days I actually concluded that Rajasthan is the dirtiest of all the states I have been to in the country. 

The other place I had read about in Bikaner was Lalgarh Palace. We enquired about it at Junagarh and figured that entry there closes by 5:00 pm. One hour was enough to see Junagarh, so we decided to cover Lalgarh the same day. We were anyway scheduled to leave the city next afternoon. But when we reached Lalgarh, we discovered that the entire property is now a hotel, with just a museum open to tourists. It was a big, big put-off! The structure was nice, but we were so irritated that we didn't bother going into the museum. And we were quite hungry too. So we decided to check out the palace (yes, hotel!) in the garb of visiting their coffee shop. 
That coffee shop was terrible with limited menu options. Both our tea and coffee were bad. I can't recall why, but we had ordered nachos. What we got were (deep fried) matthi nachos and having that dish on our table was one of the funniest moments of this trip. Of course, our expectations were high because we were upset about it being an elitist hotel where an elitist wedding was scheduled to happen. 

It was one of those days when countless weddings were happening in the country, including in Bikaner. We walked past a few hotels and banquets and took an auto back to our hotel. 

When we got back, we had a chat at the reception and figured that there is no other place we can really visit the next day. Neither of us had any interest in going to Mata Karni Devi Temple, the one filled with rats. And it didn't make sense to go to Gajner either because the arrangement there is apparently the same as at Lalgarh. So we changed our plan of leaving the next afternoon to taking the 5:30 am bus to Jaisalmer. 

While the weather was manageable throughout, this morning bus journey was the coldest of my life! I was freeeezing! And that's why I waited more eagerly for the sun to rise. 

The crack of dawn and then sunrise over arid land was perfectly beautiful. Vidha slept through it. Silly!

The bus was rather slow because it stopped at every village on the way. We reached Jaisalmer only by noon. We quickly checked in and went straight for lunch. Breakfast was an apple and a carrot each that we had picked from Pokran. Thereafter we set out with a little map of the place to check off all the places to see. 

Our hotel
Jaisalmer is the smallest of all these cities that we visited. It is also the dirtiest and most touristy of them all. The city is filled with over-friendly young lads. But since it was small enough, we walked to most of the places, starting with the main bazaar. 

From there we took an auto to Vyas Chhatri and Bada Bagh which are in the super-clean cantonment area. Windmills, on one hand, were very fascinating to observe from such proximity. On the other hand, they completely killed the sunset view from the cenotaphs. Once the sun decided to go a little easy, the city did have the much talked about golden hue. The breeze also got cooler. We were finally feeling comfortable and at peace.   

Vyas Chhatris

Ms. Shukla

At an attempt to get the self timer in place

Bada Bagh
This one is prettier than Vyas Chhatris

The plan was to visit the Gadisar Lake the next morning at sunrise. But we kept chatting till late at night and I was a bit under the weather, so we woke up only at 10 am. We had a few hours before we were to leave for the desert that day, and we used those to check out the main fort which houses more than 4000 people. Originally, the entire city of Jaisalmer was inside the premises of the fort. 

The armoury and weapons were too cool!


Life inside the fort

The golden city
In Jaisalmer, we couldn't help notice the very evidently skewed sex ratio. We just didn't see any women! It seemed very odd, but it was true. And even Bikaner for that matter was only men. Seeing women on the streets was exception, not the rule.  

I remembered this restaurant being reviewed on Highway on My Plate.
The man who runs it is a rather interesting and eccentric man.

The Jaisalmer Fort

And then began the smooooth drive towards the desert. The landscape, the view, the colours and characters kept reminding me of Aamir Khan's Sarfarosh. The desert, the cattle, the white turbans, the muslim men with kohl and pathani suits, and of course, the structures were reeling a movie in my mind. 

At one small tapri we suddenly went off road and I noticed a man with three camels approaching us. Ismail, our escort along with Johnny, Maggu and Victoria was ready to take us for a fun ride into infinity. Getting on to the camels was funny and awkward. Thankfully, I wasn't alone in this embarrassment. And thankfully, it was just the two of us. 

Upon reaching the dunes

Ismail sang folk songs through the two hour journey. One of the songs turned out to be the one from which the famour 'kajra re' was adapted. 

His English accent was impressive too. He had picked up the language over the past 10 years from tourists he takes on safaris in the desert. 

I was extremely apprehensive about this adventure. If anything were to go wrong, the two of us would never have been found again. We didn't know where we were. Ismail's eyes and smile, to me, were extremely scary. I could totally imagine him switching into a monstrous being any moment. 

But Vidha was convinced that we were safe. We also had a few groups of international tourists somewhere around. And well, our booking was based on recommendations by Tripadvisor. So I guess I was just being paranoid. 

All six of us :)

My best picture from the trip :D

The sunset on my right

Ismail cooked a basic yet delicious meal for us in absolute darkness. We were done with dinner by about 7:30 pm. 

Thereafter, we were given our mattresses and blankets to sleep. There were no tents there. And our corner only had Vidha, me, one Polish dude, Andreas, Ismail, and Andreas' escort. We could not see anybody else. And well, it was anyway so dark that we couldn't move a step without a flashlight. 

Once in bed, I was absolutely mesmerised by the blanket of stars in the sky which was so stunning that no words can do justice to the sight. I spotted so many shooting stars! The experience was completely out of the world. 

But I was curious about the moon. I knew it was not a new moon night, but I could just not locate it. Clearly, there was something about science that I was not getting. 

I had hoped to click some pictures of the night sky. But turned out my camera is not advanced enough to capture star trails. Guidance from Prashant and his friend, Munish didn't help. Oh, I forgot to mention that Airtel had full network the whole time. It was quite incredible. 

After a while I gave up on trying to click the stars and decided to just gaze at them with the naked eye. 

It was a little cold but not as much as I expected. I don't know when I dozed off, but the slight discomfort of sleeping on an uneven surface woke me up a couple of times during the night. At about 1:45 am, I got up and happened to see the crimson moon shining bright at the horizon. That moment! *sigh* It was BEAUTIFUL.

We were told that our journey back to Jaisalmer would begin early enough. That ensured I was up at dawn and got to see the sun rise one more time.  

The windmills at dawn

Breakfast with the Polish man

Sunrise on my left

All set to head back
The 360 degree view was exhilarating!

After the rides with Maggu
By the time we reached back, our thighs and backs were killing us. It was a lot of exercise, particularly when the camels were running. 

Thankfully, we had booked a cab to go to Jodhpur. We were in no position to take the bus after that. 

Before heading out, we went to the Gadisar Lake. The sun was too bright, but I didn't want to miss it. A few scenes from Sarfarosh were actually shot here!

The place was quiet and least intrusive

Having talked about it for over a week, Vidha finally bought bhaang for herself

The drive to Jodhpur on NH 15 was smooth till Balesar. Thereafter the roads were quite bad. 

Where Vidha lost her iPod

The bhaang had begun to take over

Jodhpur turned out to be much bigger than either of us anticipated. It is a fully developed city. I would probably have not gone there if I knew it was so big. 

We visited the Mehrangarh Fort, which again was quite commercialised. And we happened to be there on a Sunday which meant a LOT of local crowd. 

From there we went to the hotel, Umaid Bhawan Palace. The last maharaja still lives there. And the Taj Group of Hotels owns the rest. 

Yes, we only saw the museum

We did see vintage cars on display too. So hot! So royal! I wished I wasn't a maharani only in my head.

The evening was spent in old Jodhpur. We actually went there after reading some reviews of a restaurant, Panorama View. While the restaurant was worth every penny spent there, the rest of the area was great too! We had omelette sandwiches near the Ghanta Ghar - from a small shop that features on Lonely Planet. One of the co-owners could speak in fluent Korean. These people are so inspiring!

The Ghanta Ghar at Old Jodhpur - the clock was working! 

Coming back to the Panorama View restaurant. It had ambience better than I expected. We had two sounds we could hear there - the santoor and sitar being played in the premises, and the bhajans being sung at some far off mandir in the city. We ordered wine and I drowned myself in the calmness of the moment. 

Mehrangarh Fort at night

The next morning we went to the Kaylana Lake. This one was another surprise. Apparently, tourists don't go there because it's a little away from the main city. But it was clean and rather big. It also serves the city's drinking water capacities. We didn't spend much time there, but our love for water was satiated within those few moments. 

From there we went to the main market to shop a little. Being there was like being in Dilli Haat. There was hardly anything that I had not seen here in Delhi. I just managed to pick one pair of shoes which had a slightly unique design. 

From there we rushed to catch our bus to Jaipur. This bus ride was another six hours on the road. On the way, two main places we crossed were Ajmer and Beawar. Ajmer seemed to be as dirty as the other places I mentioned above. I really wonder why this state has no system of garbage disposal!

But Beawar! The esrtwhile capital of Mewar. It had the colourful women I kept looking for during the past week. It also had the interesting men in sexy turbans and mustaches. Even the carts with heaps of red chillies! I think I am just glad I got to see 'em before leaving Rajasthan. I could obviously not click any pictures of them. 

From Jaipur, we took the double decker train back to Delhi. Not the most comfortable, but it was a nice journey back. One last sunrise, but this one with some clouds in the sky. It had been raining. I stood by the door for a while and soaked in the cold winter morning. 

Few things can make one smile as perfect weather does. Perfect weather actually has many manifestations. To me, even the desert sun brought a lot of happiness. 

We concluded that this trip was a 7 on 10 because the place loses on commercialisation, lack of safety, and lack of basic hygiene and cleanliness. But we did have a great time. We do know we will go back to the desert again. I know I have to visit a few baolis which I didn't get to see during this trip. And well, getting away to a new place is always thrilling! :-)   

For anyone planning to make this trip, here are a few things that might help:

# We stayed at Marudhar Heritage Hotel on Ganga Sheher Road, Bikaner. It comes up as one of the most recommended budget hotels on Tripadvisor. The hotel was okay, and close to the station too, but the street is actually a market for hardware and auto parts. I personally feel one can get a better hotel closer to the larger markets. 

# Shiv Sagar restaurant in the main market of Bikaner is quite nice!

# There are no Volvos/air-conditioned buses plying from Bikaner or Jaisalmer. You will be told of a deluxe bus, but please don't imagine it to be a deluxe one literally. And most certainly don't attempt to travel overnight in a sleeper bus because they are all extremely dirty.

# The Jaipur-Jodhpur route certainly has good buses. The RSRTC ones are most reliable.

# Lalgarh and Gajner Palace, like I mentioned, are only hotels and it's a waste going there unless you plan to stay in the hotel.

# Do prior research about Sam and Khuri, the two main desert areas any travel agent/hotel will take you to. Ideally, don't book any of it before reaching Jaisalmer (unless you're going in peak season, maybe). Every second shop offers camel and desert safaris. And agree upon every detail of things offered in your package before heading out. 

# Don't go to Hotel Mystic Jaisalmer. The location and the food were bad. More importantly, the owner was a creep who is happy to fleece people. Particularly Indians! The rooms were affordable, clean and nicely decorated though.

# Don't eat at Royal Rasoi in the market next to Dhibba Para in Jaisalmer. A meal there was the worst of the entire trip.

# When in Jaisalmer, carry cash! Few places accept cards, and our experience was that ATMs were hardly working.

# Blooming House Home Stay in Jodhpur is managed by a nice family. But it is located away from the main city and all the major attractions. And autos in Jodhpur are a bit on the expensive side. So maybe you can consider some other options near Nai Sarak.  

# People will recommend Hotel Priya for a good meal in Jodhpur. I would say that while the food we had there tasted good, it took a whole day to digest it! Bad, bad oil used for cooking!

# You can book a prepaid auto for INR 440 for a whole day of sight seeing in Jaipur. Available at the railway station. Must surely be available at other places too.

# We stayed at Hotel Kalyan in Jaipur. This one is at a nice location, and not too far from the railway station. The owner's wife loves talking. But otherwise a decent and affordable hotel. 

For more details, drop a comment. :)


P. said...

Oooh, I love this!
First I must say that the picture of the Rajasthani man lookingout the window is stunning.

Sleeping under the stars is so surreal. I keep receiving these emailers for desert camps here - think I'll finally try one.

And there's a Ristorante Italiano! Haha :)

There's so much I want to say - but I think I'll do most of that in person.

Also, you girls' have hair looking like divas. In the desert, I don't know how you managed that!

RB said...

:D That man sitting there was asking to be clicked.

Oh, you should totally go for it. It's so close and convenient for you. Next weekend pe karo!

Bhai, wahan German Bakery and Free Tibet restaurant(s) bhi they. Kuch zyada hi cosmo hai Jaisalmer.

In person? Usko toh abhi six weeks hain. :(

The hair felt dirty but looked good. It's only coastal cities that make hair look like shit. Sookhe mein kya problem hai.

Akshay said...

Damn cool.. Was a trip back in time...: ) Our North trip is happening na? Am saving up...

RB said...

:) Iraada to hai.

Akshay said...

Iraada pakka karo!