Jaisalmer. Saturday 28th January 2023
When I rode out of Jaisalmer I went down the same road we’d used when camel riding, and I continued on until I came to a tiny village that had nothing there worth seeing. Good, just what I wanted. I found a homestay that was extremely basic but very cheap. The Rs400 price included lunch, dinner and breakfast. Once I’d unloaded my gear I got on with some writing, feeling like one of those authors that needs to cut themselves off from the world to get their work done. Pretentious nonsense, of course, but I did get a blog post completed. In addition, I wanted to just be in the desert to experience the atmosphere of this unusual environment.
In the morning, while waiting for the sun to warm up the day, I chatted to the owner. I asked about agriculture in these desert areas. “Do you use irrigation?” I asked. He said not. They wait for the rainy season to arrive then plant, cultivate and harvest before everything dries up again. That explained why some of the areas I’d seen were ploughed and fenced off. And in the meantime? They herd goats, sheep, cattle etc. I imagine that breeding and selling camels comes into that somewhere. They’re certainly very popular in these areas.
As I rode on that day I could see it had been raining, going by the deep puddles I came across in the towns. Eventually I caught up with it and stopped to shelter. When I found a hotel I knocked him down from Rs1500 to Rs1200, and might have been able to go lower. When I had told the Dutch couple about doing this they were amazed, having just accepted the price they were quoted. I needed hot water but it was only available in the morning. Have I moaned about this situation before? In case I haven’t, I’ll moan again. It’s a stupid idea! You need a shower when you arrive, hot, sweaty and dusty. But it happens all the time. Mine host’s answer to my request was to bring me an electric heating element that I could put in a bucket of cold water. And it worked a treat.
I’d come to Sumerpur to visit the Ranakpur Jain temple, One of their most important. Jainism is a minority religion in India and its beliefs are very close to Buddhism, although it pre-dates it by about three hundred years. But the leader responsible for reviving it was a contemporary of Gautama Buddha. Both philosophies focus on the need to avoid the pain of constant rebirth of the spirit (Nirvana) by right thinking and right behaviour. Neither of them have gods but Jainism states that people have a soul whereas Buddhism doesn’t. The Wiki link is here, if you want to read more.
Ranakpur Temple is large and extremely decorative, and is one of their busiest pilgrimage sites. It’s situated up in the hills with some good riding to get there. It didn’t open until midday so I walked around for a while, looking at some of the smaller temples.
I had to pay a camera fee, with strict rules as to what you can take pictures of. I paid for an audio guide, which was well worth the money. The building, completed in the middle of the 15th century, is fabulously ornate, with decorations on pretty much all surfaces, that take your breath away. The finesse of the carving is incredible. All the columns inside are different to each other and they all tell a story relating to the zodiac signs. There were lots of pilgrims there and I wasn’t allowed into the inner sanctum, nor was I allowed to take pictures of it. That was fair enough. So I took plenty of the other areas instead.A terrific place to visit.
The next place I went to was a temple of a different kind, more to do with camera than karma. It was the Hotel Ravla Tempur, AKA The best Marigold Hotel. I had a pleasant ride through the hills to get there. It was lovely to be in among the greenery, making a welcome change from sand. The hotel was out the back of a grotty little village and looked to me to be very run down. But I understand that it’s that way in the films, although I have no way of knowing having never seen them.
I walked in through the gate and was met by one of the staff, who called the owner. He said he normally charges Rs500 for a visit but he wouldn’t charge me. Great. The staff member showed me round, pointing out all the parts of the hotel that had featured in the film. It meant nothing to me but I appeared interested and gave him Rs200 for his trouble.
The owner had now turned up and he organised some chai while we chatted. He told me the hotel had been used in Bollywood films as well and he gets the work by registering it with an agent. I think that part of its attraction is its shabby appearance, giving a ‘real world’ backdrop to all those colourful scenes. I told him I was going to Udaipur and, of course, he knew someone who had a hotel there and would give me a special price. Specially expensive is what it seemed to me, at Rs3,000 per night. Way above my pay grade. I think people often look at this middle aged, European tourist and assume I go for higher level accommodation, meals etc. I don’t. I’m not on holiday.
I headed into the old part of Udaipur and, while stopped to look at Google, was approached by a shop keeper who said he could help me find accommodation. He took me to a guest house in a nice old building but the room was three floors up and the bathroom was on the floor above. I declined. But Google showed me a place called The Mustach Hostel, very close by. I went to look at it. I noticed that my friend didn’t follow me into this one so I’m guessing there was no friendly arrangement for him. I got a room on the second floor, talking the price down from Rs1,700 to Rs1,200. Good enough for me and I booked in for three nights. I was right in the heart of the old city, with busy, narrow streets, containing lots of places to eat and near enough to most of the sights. Time to relax and enjoy a pizza. Western tourists mean western food and I eat it when I can.
I found a cheap breakfast in one of the cafés then set out to see the sights. The first was the Vintage and Classic Car Museum, containing cars formerly used by the royal household. It was, if I’m honest, rather a disappointment, and expensive to get into, as well. It just had the typical kind of luxury saloons you’d expect a well off family to use. Mostly Rolls Royces, some Mercedes and a couple of American cars. Nothing I hadn’t seen before. Except …… in a building behind the main display was a collection of five experimental solar powered vehicles. Some were front wheel drive, others rear, but they all relied on roof mounted solar panels for their electrical power. They were tricycles set up as simple carriages. So maybe the museum wasn’t such a disappointment after all.
On to the main event, the City Palace. This was built as a new capital by the Mewar Kings, aiming to have a better protected city against their enemies. Construction began in the 16th century and it continued to be improved over the next four hundred years. It is now a complex of buildings, the main one being a museum. Others are luxury hotels. It is still owned by the Mewar family, proving that moving the capital to stave off attack worked really quite well!
It was a steep uphill walk to the entrance, having paid my entry fee at the bottom. I got the over sixty rate and got a laugh out of the guy behind me in the queue when I said, “See, there are some advantages to be old.” The first thing I came across was a beautifully laid out courtyard garden, overlooking the town down below. This was the rear of the palace, the front being only fully visible from the lake the palace was built next to. I never did actually get to see it. It would have been necessary to cough up for the boat ride to do that.
The museum was very carefully laid out according to whichever period of its history was being covered. It was on several floors and I seemed to spend forever going along corridors and up and down narrow stairs. “Did this family invent the game of snakes and ladders”, I wondered? It would be tempting to say that all the displays were “The usual”, referring to the plenitude of paintings, artefacts etc. But they managed to make it very interesting by splitting the displays up to reflect the changing history of the palace and of Indian rule. It definitely made it all more meaningful, and the effect worked in the opposite direction too. By that I mean it added colour to the dates and events that I was already familiar with.
The whole look of the building and its surrounds made this place rather special, more so than I expected. I’d become used to brown (or pink) brickwork and rock and stone, rather than this gleaming white edifice. But I was feeling rather footsore by the end. A very good visit though, especially at the price.
On the way back to the hostel I got a much needed haircut. It’s easy to forget the mundane needs of the long term traveller. I liked this area of the old city. It was next to a lake and was bright and airy and, as mentioned, plenty of cheap eateries.
While out yesterday I’d spotted a ghat next to the nearby lake. After another cheap breakfast I walked round there and found it to be a popular place for wedding photos. Several couples were taking advantage of the classical appeal of Gangour Ghat and its proximity to the lake for their wedding photo backdrop. The entrance area on the landward side was very appealing too, as my own photos showed. And in case you wondered, “Ghats” in this context refers to a broad flight of steps leading down to a river or lake, to provide access for bathing etc. You’ll also see the word used to refer to a range of hills.
Up the hill a bit from the lake was the Jagdish Temple. Up some steep steps to get in there but only as far as the outer area as there was a ceremony going on and a queue to get inside. I took photos and then left.
Udaipur had been a nice place to visit but was the last of the ‘City Forts’ that I’d be seeing in Rajasthan. I rode up to Mount Abu, where there was another Jain temple to look at. But they wouldn’t let me take my phone or camera inside of this one, so no photos to show you. Sorry. But it was very similar to the one I’d visited a few days ago, being big on decorated stone columns and lots of carvings.
The hotel I stayed was good and friendly, but had a 9 a.m. checkout time. I just about made it down to breakfast at nine, and I was half way through it when one of the staff asked me if I was leaving or staying another night? He reminded me about the checkout time and I asked him what it was all about. He said it’s an arrangement they have with one of the big tour companies. Fair enough. I finished eating, got sorted out and was gone by ten. Today’s ride took me out of Rajasthan and into Gujarat.
My next visit was to quite a unique place, but with an undercurrent of tension to it. I went to the Indo/Pak border area of Nadabet. After riding down towards it for a while I came to a big complex where I was told to stop and park the bike. I went to a ticket office to pay but a guy intervened and told me to wait while he fetched his manager. A guy named Vinay came out and took me under his wing. He told me to take anything valuable off the bike and bring it into his office for safe keeping. But this place was a military base, so how much security did I need? Then he got my ticket for me, still at a cost of Rs500. Then one of his staff took me out to the bus where I sat myself down. Eventually a young lady named Sswati came to join me, telling me she was to be my guide. She said she enjoyed this part of her job as it got her out of the office. She comes from Uttarakhand so was delighted when I told her I’d been there.
All of this palaver seemed to be very over the top to me. But the situation was that bikes weren’t allowed to drive down to the actual border and, it seemed to me, many of the car drivers preferred to take the bus as well. The complex was for tourists as well as the Border Security Force, and it included a museum, a play area for younger kids and an adventure area for older ones, as well as a food court. The whole set up struck me as very over the top but who was I to argue with it all? I know nothing about securing borders, after all.
The bus pulled out of the complex onto the border road, but was soon stopped at a checkpoint. A soldier got on and took a headcount. Sswati and I were ordered off so my foreigner details could be entered into a special register. I felt a bit guilty about holding up the bus but there was nothing I could do about it.
We set off again for a twenty five kilometre drive down to the actual border fence. It took us across a wide and empty salt flat, with lots of Pelicans and Storks feeding, away in the distance. During the monsoon this area, part of the Thar Desert, which separates India and Pakistan, becomes a shallow and very saline lake. It gets fiercely hot in the summer. It’s renowned for its bird life and appeals to birdwatchers from all over the world. I could see some concrete supports laid into the mud at regular intervals. I later learned that they were from a railway line that used to cross the border, now long defunct.
When we got to the bus parking area we got out and walked around. There is a barbed wire fence at the Line of Control, which is five hundred metres from a similar fence on the Pak side. The actual border line is exactly in the middle, two hundred and fifty metres from where we stood. There’s a finger post pointing to Pakistan in one direction, and India in the other, just right for a photo. The other photo opportunity was a long sign saying “I Am @ Nadabet”. Absolutely aimed at the internet generation.
There were a couple of classes of primary school kids there too, and I was more than happy to get included in their photos. Meeting a foreigner on their school trip probably brings some pretty good bragging rights.
Right, the serious stuff. Why is all this rather serious security necessary.
Nadabet used to be one of several border crossings between the two countries. There was always tension in certain areas, chiefly Kashmir, and Pakistan tried to foment a revolution there, hoping to gain control. This led to hostilities in 1965, which also took place in the Rann of Kuch, the very area where we were. This all ended in a stalemate but it led India to set up the Border Security Force (BSF) who were the soldiers we were being controlled by.
Roll on to 1971 and the war between India and Pakistan over Bangladeshi independence. At the time of Partition, in 1947, Bangladesh, at that time called East Pakistan, had been part of the new country of Pakistan. A ridiculous situation given that the closest border between the two areas was at least two thousand kilometres apart. But as part of the conflict, with India supporting Bangladeshi independence, Pakistan attacked Indian air bases near to Nadabet. The BSF then went into Pakistan and captured various of their bases in retaliation. They held them until peace was agreed, then gave them back to Pakistan. But the result was total closure of the border crossing at Nadabet, with the likelihood of it ever opening again seeming very remote. The effect on local people was similar to that of the Berlin Wall, with divided families now needing special permission and a very long journey to stay in contact. It just struck me as unreal that a place with such a history can now be a mere tourist attraction.
I said to Sswati how sad it was that all this expense on border control was necessary and how much better use that money could be put to. She looked rather puzzled by that thought, but I suppose to someone as young as her (21) there never was a ‘before’, only a ‘now’. After all, 1971 is ancient and established history to her and I don’t imagine that the history lessons she attended at school were very nuanced.
Back on the bus back to the tourist complex, with the same security checks as before. It was part of her job to show me round the other sights there so after a coffee we went across to the museum, which told more of the BSF story, particularly of 1971. She was especially keen to show me the modern art building as she liked the paintings. Then we went out to watch the end of day flag ceremony. Plenty of prancing about by the different sections stationed there, before the flag was lowered to the sound of the Last Post.
So that was a very interesting afternoon, with lots of different aspects to the whole thing. It all had an air of unreality to it. The idea of visiting a closed border, where fighting had once taken place, as being a good day out seemed very strange. Especially given that, 1,500 kilometres to the north in Kashmir, skirmishes occasionally still take place. But the everlasting salt flats clearly couldn’t care less about man’s silly fights. The BSF took it all very seriously indeed, which is their job, after all. And the school kids had a great day out with the added delight of a photo with an old fart from England. And the old fart enjoyed all of it.
My next target was the Dholivira archaeological site, which is the location of a 5,000 year old town of the Harappan people. They were part of the ancient Indus Valley civilisation. The ride there was very interesting. I wandered down lots of back roads and on one of them I found myself riding alongside the KBC Canal – Kutch Branch Canal. It was deep and wide and was clearly for the purpose of irrigation. Some research revealed that it’s part of a network of canals bringing water from the Narmada River, in the north of the state. At 357 kilometres long, it’s claimed to be the longest branch canal in the world. It also supplies drinking water to the villages of the area. It sits up on a big embankment, above the fields. At frequent intervals there were diesel powered pumps whose pipes ran through the embankment to carry water to them. This mega piece of infra structure clearly meets a need very successfully.
I’d seen big pylons marching across the countryside, which seemed to be heading towards Pakistan. That would have been very odd. But soon after that, and just to add to the environmental feel good factor I was enjoying, I came across a MASSIVE solar farm. It’s output is, or will soon be, 5 Gigawatts. Availability of this level of power gives opportunities for other development, such as new industry. With the exception of the three monsoon months, Gujarat gets around 275 hours of sunshine per month. Alongside of the wind farms I saw in Rajasthan, this part of India seems to be doing a great job for renewables.
Full of the joys of spring after seeing these two projects, I then completely spoiled the mood by getting lost – kind of. I followed the Google route into a village, whose central area was mostly mud, covered with plenty of straw, cattle and the mess they produce. Hmm. I followed the route out of the village onto a sandy track. After a couple of kilometres of sand I noticed that Google said to keep going for 31 kilometres then to turn left. Hmmmm. Was all of that distance sand? I didn’t know. No thank you, was my decision and I turned back. After a couple of wrong turnings, and to the great amusement of the local populace, I found my way out of the village and took a better route.
Dholivira was worth the visit. They’ve done a great job of digging out the old town and of explaining its history. It was quite a large city but was abandoned after about 1,500 years. Some of the remains of the walls were only about a metre high but others retained a greater height so I could still get a sense of the city’s size. They were still putting the finishing touches to the site and, best of all, entry was free. I wonder how long that will last? In the car park I met a guy who said that I should be able to see some fossils lying around and be able to pick them up, “Just like the British Museum”, he said. Oooh, very sharp. When I left I saw him again and told him I’d give his regards to the British Museum. Laughter, fist bump.
You might sometimes wonder how I go about choosing where to visit. It’s a combination of internet research and suggestions from Indian friends. But sometimes it’s serendipity and that’s what brought me to Bhuj, while on the way to another place. I’d spotted a rather splendid Hindu temple, very white and highly decorative. It was very busy too. In the car park I got surrounded by a group of school kids, there on a visit. They were actually interested in the bike, which made a change. I also went down to the nearby museum, which had a good display on the area’s prehistoric times.
My original destination had been Lakhpat, where there’s a large fort. Inside it is a Sikh Gurudwara, where I went to enquire about accommodation. Usually you can just rock up to these places and get food and a bed, basically for free, although you’re expected to make a contribution. But because this place was near to the border it had to be booked, and that was back in Bhuj, from where I’d just come. So I had to find a hotel.
Where I stayed was near to an important temple. I took a walk over to it and was intrigued by the nearby row of stalls selling ready made Puja offerings. Small bowls containing fruit, flowers and the essential half a coconut. Rs100 a go. But the downside of being near the temple was evident during the early hours of the morning. I went for a pee at about 3.a.m and was kept awake by the noise of people talking, walking about and filling buckets with water. I guessed they were getting ready for a dawn visit to the temple. Eventually they left and I managed to sleep again.
I made my way back to the fort, which had pretty much all of its walls still standing. The walls had been built around the town to protect it from robbers, bankrupting the local ruler, but fifteen years later it was hit by an earthquake. It had stood on the Indus River trade route but the earthquake diverted the river away, denying the town its purpose. The people moved away and it became a ghost town. Most of the walls still stand, along with the fortifications behind them. But almost none of the original buildings exist, although there is a very old mosque and the Gurudwara. Some people still live there in more modern houses.
It was quite a big area inside so I rode around, rather than walked. There was a kind of visitor centre over on the far side from the main entrance. The walls were easily accessible so I walked around them a bit. I saw that one of the towers had been painted so I walked along to look at it. It was, in fact, a guard post manned by two members the BSF. I had a chat with one of them. That side of the fort overlooked the Rann of Kutch, the big salt pan. I asked him how far away the border with Pakistan was and he said 40 kilometres. I just thought “Why are you wasting your time here?” But I suppose there is a theoretical chance that Pak forces could find their way across, especially when the monsoon waters made the salt flats into a shallow lake. But I somehow doubted it.
I made my way along to the town of Mandvi, along a very rough road and via a temple next to the sea. I found a delightful guest house, run by a very friendly and helpful couple, where I booked in for two nights. My bike required some maintenance. All the facilities I needed were 40 kilometres away, back in the town of Buhj.
I had rung the Royal Enfield dealer and also looked for a tyre supplier as the rear one needed replacing. I was amazed to realise that it had covered close to 20,000 kilometres, and that’s on a bike that carries lots of luggage. I rode to Buhj and got the tyre replaced first, then went to the Enfield workshop for the service. It was only a 5,000Kms service so didn’t take long.
Back at the guest house I tackled a couple of electrical jobs that still needed doing. The earth circuit for the spotlights and heated grips was improved, and also the earth for my GPS. I’d bought a new switch for the spotlights and that went on. The chain oiler needed a bit of sorting out so that was done too. A nice productive day then, with some outstanding jobs cleared up. It’s always a good feeling to keep on top of these things.
Mandvi is a port city, mostly for fishing. It also has boatyards. I took a walk alongside the shore and was surprised to see what looked like old and decrepit boats moored there. But a closer look showed that although old, they were being refurbished. There were piles of new planks alongside them, with scaffolding and form-work along the sides of the boats. I could see that they were being rebuilt to the original standards and methods of construction. But why? Of course, they have an inherent value, but what would they be used for? Sadly, I didn’t know.
As I left Mandvi the bike felt good. Everything worked as it should. Money and effort well spent then. The main road was busy with trucks. Many of them were artics and most of them carried containers. It’s unusual to see container trucks in India, let alone so many of them. But when I looked at the map I realised there was a container port nearby.
It got very warm as the day progressed, up to 43 degrees C at one point. There were roadworks here and there and I was very surprised to see proper warning signs, with cones carefully laid out. Very un-Indian. But it became a sweaty, dusty, sticky ride and I was very pleased to get to my destination of Junaghad and to find a hotel.
This town was merely on the way to some other places but it did have a station that had some renown. Well, let’s put it this way, it was marked as a place of interest on Google maps, so it must have had something to make it noteworthy. I took a walk down there and decided it wasn’t anything special, apart from being old. And yet …… when I walked out onto the platform I realised that what made it notable was its length. It must have been over 200 metres long, or more. I was amazed. And also very puzzled. It was at least twice as long as any normal train would be, so what was its purpose? And, very oddly, the opposite platform was much shorter. A curiosity rather than a classic then. Opposite the station was a lovely, stylish looking building, which was a town hall.
I headed to Dwarka, with morning mists still rising off the fields as I rode across country. This part of Gujarat looked to be very fertile, with lovely, rich brown earth and plenty of crops of various types. I passed several combine harvesters. Those don’t come cheap, suggesting that there was plenty of work for them to do. In itself, that suggested productive and financially beneficial land. A very long way from the sandy desolation of Rajasthan.
None of the roads were especially busy except when I was near to industrial areas. Dwarka itself is a temple town and when I got there I found where it was, then backtracked a bit until I found a hotel. I walked to the temple but it was closed until later. So I walked along by the ghats, eating ice cream and people watching.
I went back to the temple when it opened, and waited a bit for the initial surge to die down. Then I discovered that I wouldn’t be allowed to take any kind of camera in there, and there was a very long queue to get in, so I decided not to bother. Instead I took a couple of photos from the outside then went for a walk around the shops, just to see what was there.
But the day ended with a strange twist to it. An Aussie woman contacted me via the comments section of the blog to thank me for showing a photo of her cousin’s grave, up in Broome, W.A. He’d committed suicide in 2011. This seemed very random and I couldn’t see anything relevant in the blog or in my photos. I contacted her, asking for a bit more information. Eventually she came back to me to say it had appeared in my blog and she’d found it somehow via Google. She’d tried other methods to get a photo of the grave, including via one of the family research websites but, purely by coincidence, I’d come up with the goods.
Of course you’re wondering why I had a photo of her cousins grave in my blog, aren’t you. And the answer is that there’s a big graveyard in Broome, mostly occupied by Japanese pearl divers, who’d died doing their job or who’d died early because of the adverse effects of it. While I was walking round I’d seen this grave of a Maori man, which happened to be very decorative but also looked out of place. And I’d put it in that blog post just as a curio. So it was great to think that I’d helped a random stranger in her family quest. If you happen to want to see that blog post, and the photo, it’s here.
I was slowly heading south, to Pune, riding around the coast of Gujarat. If you look at the map you’ll see that part of the state bulges out into the Arabian Sea, and that’s where I was. Nice roads, green fields, occasional beaches with sand and camels. I came to Porbander, the birthplace of Mahatma Ghandi. The house was still there and was, not surprisingly, a memorial to him. The exact spot was marked with a swastika painted on the floor (the Indian variant, of course), and there was a small museum, mostly full of photographs. His family were well off and the house reflected this.
Outside the house I was approached by a beggar who was about ten years old. I was shocked by their appearance because their skin looked as if it had been crisped by a blowlamp. It was awful, and their hair was very patchy and frizzy. I couldn’t actually tell whether it was a boy or a girl. I broke my normal rule about beggars and gave them some money.
Travelling on, I came to the town of Palitana and visited one of the Jain temples there. As I went in a guard told me I couldn’t take any photos but once I was out of his sight I ignored his instructions. That may sound disrespectful but given that I’d been to one of Jainism most important temples and had been encouraged to take photos, by virtue of being charged a fee, I felt I was justified.
It is a beautiful building, with very pretty flower designs around the walls and some excellent carvings. There was another temple next door but I didn’t bother with it. In fact there’s over 800 Jain temples in the hills in this area, both large and small, built over the last millennium. All the followers were wearing white and many of them carried thin bamboo sticks. I have no idea why. All that grandeur made me wonder how such a minority religion gets the funds for so much building. It must have had some rich followers.
I’d stayed in the town of Nashik and when I left, via a nice dual carriageway, I soon arrived at the morning traffic jam. It was caused by traffic control at a junction so I was soon through it. Further on I came to another big jam and this time Google Maps was telling me it would be a one hour delay. Google does wind me up sometimes. I was right next to a side turning, which Google had marked as an alternative route. Usually it will send me off down back roads and alleyways, just to pointlessly save me a minute and 500 metres. But this time it didn’t bother to divert me when I really did need it. So I diverted myself and the ETA instantly dropped by 20 minutes, and kept going down. Maybe Google thought I’d already passed the turning or something. It’s a mystery to me and I long ago stopped trying to second guess it.
The route took me up through the hills on some great roads and eventually I came into Pune, for my third visit. I felt like I was riding round in circles now, albeit very big ones. I was going to meet up with my friends Jay and Dilip, and get a couple of jobs done on the bike. That story will come along soon.