From Bikaner though RatsCity to Jaiselmer

Getting out of Delhi was easier than getting in. The Delhi landscape is already dry, and as we traveled westward the terrain became increasingly arid, the towns small and dusty.

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Not surprising, for we were back in Rajasthan, heading for the massive Thar desert which borders Pakistan.

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In Delhi, we lost the two Austrian ladies and the two English girls. But to fill their seats we picked up four newcomers: Ian, seated without guitar; wife Marilyn just over his shoulder; and Claire with brilliant smile with back to wall.

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The fourth person is not in that picture, and the official group picture is too fuzzy (shot by guide). But here she is seated next to me (Carol, I suddenly recall).

Ian and Marilyn achieved great success (and wealth) in the IT business, in finance, in The City (London). Jaded, they gave that up and began teaching (Ian) and volunteer work (Marilyn). They were quite interesting, great conversationalists, especially Marilyn. Ian tended to meander with an excessive concern for detail, as might be expected from an IT guru. We talked a lot about all sorts of stuff. They had an interesting relationship, sometimes close, sometimes edgy. Ian often seemed to get things wrong, misjudging her wishes- as in one case Marilyn came to the back of the truck, from her seat in front, to get something from Ian. He said she should read an article he had. She said, OK, later, I’m busy. Fine he said, I was just asking, not trying to run your life or anything, not for me to do that, blah blah blah. Marilyn rolled her eyes and returned forward.

They have a condo in the ski area just north of Montreal which they visit once a year. They said they would give me a call next time. Not yet. Maybe they were traumatized by events after I left the trip…

Claire was a school teacher in suburban London or maybe Reading. In fact she was negotiating by phone a new job on her return from the trip, successfully in the end. Her back story was that a grandfather came from Britain to work on the railways in southern India in early 1900s, married a local. I think her mother was born there. So she was visiting Goa, and perhaps relatives. She has a wonderful smile, very open personality, and a notable ability to keep pace with the Booze Brothers, resulting in escalating attention from Mike.

Carol was in fact a close friend of Marilyn and Ian, persuaded to join the trip, somewhat out of character, I think to bury some sort of trauma. From York as I recall, though not possessing a northern accent. Very quiet but also a charming conversationalist and avid photographer.

Local Housing

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Throughout the whole Nepal-India trip I was interested in how people lived, especially outside the towns and cities. Along this stretch to Bikaner and beyond, I was able to catch a few shots of local housing.

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Obviously not many trees around. Because forests have long disappeared, most Indian (and Nepalese) housing is poured concrete, usually reinforced. Especially in the countryside, it was common to see homes under construction, one floor lived-in, rebar poking up awaiting a second floor. Usually, older run-down buildings lining the roads, typically on the edge of smaller towns, were constructed loosely in dessicated wood. The buildings above are newer, apparently well kept, probably built by middle class citizens or successful farmers. The lump in the foreground above is a haystack.

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This building on the edge of a dusty town appears to be in older concrete. It has seen better days, perhaps even days of wealth or civic importance judging by the now-faded façade.

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The sign perhaps conveys an important message…maybe ‘historic site’, or maybe ‘condemned, stay out’.

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Similarly this impressive façade suggests this dusty town once housed some more influential souls intent on converting wealth to artistic displays.

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By contrast, a fine structure, obviously some sort of modern institution, maybe a sect. We saw a lot of this kind of gated facility, throughout the trip, often private schools with bunches of school buses lined up in the parking lot.

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But more typically, really dusty, disheveled villages…

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Dust with temple.

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and sometimes a bit more green. Ditches and streams were usually bone dry, the monsoon long over by October. The wells on which Indians rely were sometimes visible in settlements.

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I was fascinated by the type of structure on the left, a common sight but hard to capture on camera. Very small thatched buildings, always isolated in open ‘fields’. Possibly housing for itinerant farm workers.

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Another feature of the modest agricultural scene was the hay transporters- gigantic bags full of hay overwhelming their trailers which are under there somewhere, They trundle down the road at snail’s pace, creating traffic havoc. Woe getting behind one. I think this one, as we were leaving, tipped backwards, lifting the tractor off the ground…

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A sustainable recycling machine

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We had a very long day, starting at 5:45am, on terrible roads from 10 to 4 through the semi-desert, reaching our hotel in Bikaner at 6:30 pm . I can’t believe Dragoman really checks the route beforehand unless they enjoy torturing clients. The newcomers survived a rough first day mostly by sleeping.

Dragoman does not have much to say about this small town: “Bikaner (1488) is a desert town in north west Rajasthan, protected from the encroaching sands by its high city walls and gates. The atmospheric old town is built out of the same pinky-red sandstone as many of the buildings in nearby Jaipur.” That’s it.

Lonely P. claims it is ‘vibrant, dust swirling’ with a great fort. Many of the hotels are re-purposed older buildings, run by former camel drivers or descendants of Prime Ministers.

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This is our hotel, a real classic, very modest but quite pleasant. The food in a fine dining room, was quite good as I recall. The hotel is a relic of better times, as witnessed by some really beautiful decoration. Bikaner for some time would have been an important staging point on the trade route between Delhi and Central Asia, a role ended by Partition and new transportation systems (the roads were probably good by camel standards).

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Hallway ceiling. In an adjacent room the walls recorded the great success of a former hotel owner or a local raj, in horse racing, even in British circles. Many of the Bikaner hotels apparently featured this sort of photo gallery celebrating past eminences.

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From the balcony of our hotel I caught the neighbours enjoying a quiet evening at home (actually they must have ducked inside at the moment). There seemed to be some celebration with distant fireworks on this very warm night. In the background, fireworks sparkled and crackled.

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Speaking of warm, rising very early throughout the trip to get on the road, we had to wait for hot water, sometimes unsuccessfully. Simple reason: someone had to get up long before us to stick some twigs under the water-heater. Here is the one at Bikaner, with the boys in the background.

Just overnight in Bikaner, so in the morning we got back on the road to Jaiselmer. We missed, among other sights, the National Camel Research Centre, home of the British Camel Corps in WWI. Camel research…the mind boggles.

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Unfortunately we missed the highway, winding thrugh increasingly narrow streets in old Bikaner…

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…to a point where it seems GPS told us to go through this very narrow gate. The locals got into a state about this. Crowds gathered. We got wedged in, barely able to turn around.

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Eventually we got back on the road, more of the same on the way to Rats City.

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Actually, we headed for the bizarre temple of Karni Mata in Deshnok, dedicated to a medieval-era female ascetic Hindu sage. In this temple, thousands and thousands of sacred rats known as kabbas are revered and worshipped. The legend goes that Karni Mata’s stepson, Laxman, drowned after falling into a pond when trying to take a drink, and Karni Mata convinced Yama, the god of death, to allow him and all of her other male children and descendants to be reincarnated as rats. (Dragoamn notes). Certainly a modest demand upon posterity.

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Its architecture interesting in itself

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and the sculpture

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Wait- these aren’t rats!

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Here they are, our hosts, Karni Mata’s descendants, thousands of them. They do indeed run around and over your feet, harmlessly and supposedly auspiciously. I was blessed thus several times

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Seemingly clean and healthy, even friendly

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Rats City Band. No CDs available.

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Rats City elders busy managing while the rats play at their feet.

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Later in the afternoon, nearing Jaiselmer, what I took to be a gated residential community. In fact it was a massive army post, perimeter walls going on for several kilometers. Taking a picture risked ending up in solitary for a decade or two.

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Jaiselmer, the walls of the fort. The city of Jaisalmer is one of the old Rajput capitals of Rajasthan, dating back to its founding in 1156 CE. Known as the “Golden City’, Jaisalmer is dominated by the old fort, built on a hill which gives it a commanding view over the Thar Desert. Built of beautiful yellow sandstone, the fort’s walls are a tawny beige colour during the day, fading to honey-gold as the sun sets. The monumental walls are ornately designed with imposing parapets and towers at every turn, and covered in intricate stonework. (Dragoamn notes).

The city was founded by Jaisal, a leader of the Bhati Rajput clan, and developed by subsequent generations. Despite battles between the Bhatis, the Mughals and the Rathore rajs of Jodhpur, the clan retained its independent rule through both the Mughal and British empires until relinquishing it at Independence in 1947. An economy initially built on looting, as in most classical regimes in India, eventually turned to lucrative trade as a post on the camel-train routes between India and Central Asia. That trade declined as alternate routes developed along the coast, and ended as Partition in 1947 created Pakistan immediately to the city’s west. However, Partition also reinforced Jaiselmer’s strategic position. Hence the massive army post.

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Our hotel, within walking distance of the fort, one of the best on the trip. We arrived in the afternoon, in time for a swim in the super pool. Great architecture. Fine rooms. Excellent food.

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The courtyard.

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The dining room. We enjoyed a few good soup-lunches in this fine room. There was a rooftop restaurant above, but we were unable to enjoy it because every afternoon a huge busload of school kids from Mumbai flooded the place, swarming the rooftop, filling the pool, running about the hallways etc. Next morning they would be back on the bus. It was interesting to interact with Indian teenagers, and experience their reactions to us heathens.

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The fort from our hotel

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Our first event in Jaiselmer was a visit to the fort…

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Entering by the main gate

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into a maze of narrow alleys lined with the homes, hotels, restaurants, businesses, temples of the old city.

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“In the old town the havelis (houses of once-important Jaisalmer families) look like small palaces with facades covered in fine carvings and highly-decorated balconies” (Dragoman again)

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No kidding, Dragoman!

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Marvelous balconies and walls in delicately carved sandstone.

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Detail

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More detail

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More detail including a faded mural

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In this case, some of it living

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A shrine

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Elegant gates leading to sequestered interiors, in this case a hotel.

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Another hotel

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A gateway to a shrine

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A Jain temple.

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Another temple, Bhuddist.

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The New City, from the parapets. We paused for refreshments atop the fort’s battlements in a miniscule largely open-air restaurant. Archie ordered bacon and eggs. We were there for an hour or so as the chefs sought the ingredients and a recipe.

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Afterwards we wandered through the old town outside to a gate on the exterior walls…

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…beyond which lay the local ‘tank’, a lake, probably artificial, intended as a reservoir for dry times. Apparently the intensive use of water in the old city within the fort’s walls, as a result of increasing tourism, has undermined the old city’s foundations, causing some sinking.

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Along the walls, some stuff for sale. Musical instruments.

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Brickbrack.

Here most of our troop decided to take a rickety boat ride on the ‘tank’. A few of us forewent this tame exercise.

I went back into the lively alleyways of the exterior town, in search of among other things, a bank. Part of the great adventure in Jaiselmer was trying to find an operating bank machine. We were not really aware of the burgeoning holiday season, leading up to Divali. Every day of the whole trip seemed to be a holiday. But as the locals prepared for celebrations, the stress on the banking system grew. In Jaiselmer I had tried a couple of bank machines that did not accept my cards. Nothing new. So this day I searched through the alleyways, which were filled with shops and tourists. Looked hopeful. But I noticed a swirling group of local guys also looking for cash, lining up in front of machines in growing numbers. Guys in front of the queue would report that the machine rejected a card, or shut down, or did some other perverse thing. Off we would go, running ever-faster in a small mob to the next machine, through a gate, down an alley, into a bank lobby, across the town to a machine I had tried the night before. At this one, perhaps the 10th we tried, some guys eeked out some bills. Hope! By this time I was maybe 10th in the queue, in deadly heat. After maybe 15-20 minutes I at least got into the shade of the ATM lobby. More success, more failure. A few guys gave up so I finally got my mitts on the keyboard. By this time we had collectively learned a few tricks to gain the machine’s confidence. Card accepted. Wheeuw! Type in code. Good! Specify an amount. Fine! Click the GO button…”Unable to complete your request at this time”.

At this point I was not desperate for cash. In Delhi I had cashed the last of my almost useless Am Express tavellers’ cheques, at considerable loss and inconvenience, in a backroom process worthy of s spy thriller. As it turned out, we did not hit a working ATM until Jodhpur, in a wealthy, gated enclave.

Desert Camping

Our last adventure in Jaiselmer was a camel hike and camping in the desert 40km outside the town. We drove in jeeps through increasingly barren land, past occasional villages and desert resorts, then mounted a gang of camels.

Into the sands…

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Mike and I take the lead.

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Mike.

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Doug in front of the rest of the train. The great camel trek only lasted about 30 minutes, a circle through scrubland. Some were disappointed. I was surprised by good humour of camels, especially my Mike; and the comfort of the ride. I could have ridden on to Afghanistan.

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Dunes as the sun sets

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Sand between us and Pakistan. What we saw of the massive Thar desert was much the same as I saw crossing the Taklaman in China: flat scrubland and gravel rather than towering dunes. We camped among the dunes here.

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Sand shadows

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Pete against the sky

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A UFO? Pakistani drone?

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No. What do you do in the desert? Play frisbe of course

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Desert dwellings, thatch and rock construction, like the ones seen all along the highways. These in mid-desert.

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Local gypsies. This woman and her baby appeared from a distant camp, sat among us for a long time, in search of alms of course. We did not oblige. It is sad that these people suffer discrimination and ostrasization world-wide. We did not help here, but we did collectively contribute to a couple of social support programs during the trip.

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Very beautiful gypsy. She came and sat like this with us for maybe an hour, quietly. Contemplating a better life? Fermi’s paradox? Maybe not.

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Camp at sunset. Though we were in the middle of nowhere, a few words to our jeep drivers-cooks and they soon appeared with a boat load of beer, with the usual results.

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Front line of Pakistani border defence.

After dark, our fearless leader James sneaked out his secret supply of fireworks and proceed to terrify us with random blasts and pyrotechnics. I am surprised the huge air base nearby did not send in the drones as border was only 100k away…

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Dinner done, the band warms up. This was quite fun. Interesting local music, and these ladies started dancing, enticing us to join in. By this time our inhibitions had largely dissolved.

Eventually half of us rolled out our bedrolls at a comfortable distance from the fire and the raucous other half. After some star gazing, I passed out- to be awakened sometime later by Mike staggering outward for a pee. Too close. I think I yelled something before he washed away the dune and me with it.

56 Sunrise

Early morning. Despite the ruckus, we had a beautiful night sleeping under the stars which of course are very bright and super- numerous here- and different because we are close to equator.

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Sunrise

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The morning after

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Our cooks at work

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Rehab over breakfast

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Camels on the horizon

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Some plantlife

dunes4.JPG…but sand all the way to the Pakistani border and beyond.

After breakfast we broke camp, such as it was, and headed back to Jaiselmer.

On our last night we dined together in a terraced restaurant overlooking the walls of the fort, under a bright moon.

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The restaurant had a fine waiting room, to which we were led after our meal to pay a shady looking cashier surrounded by assistants (bodyguards? accountants? policemen?)

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The atmosphere and the food were both excellent. The company, the same: Greg immediately right, then Marilyn, Steve, Claire, James. Only Pete visible on the other side of the table.

Jaiselmer was one of our best stays, with its excellent hotel and remarkable fort-city. Continuing a pattern, it seemed that every fine stay was exceeded by the following one.

Next day we headed out to another J-city, Jodhpur.

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