There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Across the Thar Desert from Bikaner to Jaisalmer, Part 4 of Rajasthan, Land of Princes

This post covers day 5 of a 16-day journey around Rajasthan.

From Bikaner we travelled to Jaisalmer at the western extremity of our route.
The size of Germany, Rajasthan is the largest of India’s 29 states. With the Thar Desert covering the north and west it is one of India’s less densely populated states, though with 200 people per km² (the same as Italy) it is hardly empty.

In the 11th and 12th centuries the rise of the Rajputs created some 20 or so petty kingdoms ruled by Maharajas - the ‘Rajput Princes’. These kingdoms, at first independent, later vassal states of the Mughal or British Empires survived until 1947, when the Maharajahs led their ‘Princely States’ into the new Union of India, creating Rajasthan (the ‘Land of Princes’). The rulers became constitutional monarchs until 1971 when the Indian government ended their official privileges and abolished their titles. ‘Maharaja’ is now a courtesy title, but most remain leading members of their communities and some are still immensely rich. Several, like their British counterparts, supplement their income by turning forts and palaces into tourist attractions and hotels.


After a breakfast of fruit, eggs and potato curry we set out on the 320km journey west across the Thar Desert to Jaisalmer.

The cereal harvest was coming to its end and straw, from rice, wheat and other crops is a useful by-product. Much of it was on the move, packed into trucks with bulging canvas extensions. Most looked overloaded, but the one that ground to a halt on the road out of Bikaner was not so much overweight as morbidly obese, the groaning canvas flopping wearily onto the tarmac. Umed squeezed past, giving us a close-up of the patched sides, the stretched stitches threatening a straw tsunami.

Overloaded rice carrier stranded in Bikaner

On the outskirts we followed a truck-load of garlic while camel carts waited by the roadside for someone to hire them.

Following garlic out of Bikaner
Out of town, we hit the main highway. It will be a good road eventually, but current up-grading meant many contraflows. The signs took some interpreting – but in the light traffic it caused no problem.

The end of a contraflow, but I have no idea what the sign means
Irrigation produced several stretches of green, though the fields hardly looked lush. We passed another straw carrier, bulging but waddling along.

Straw carrier, west of Bikaner
The flat sandy desert, studded with thorn trees, stretched away into the misty distance. Tiny settlements of circular thatched dwellings or sand-coloured cuboids came and went. Several had small temples, some blue, some gleaming white with tapering corn-cob towers, so unlike the flamboyant gopura of the south.

Roadside settlement, Thar Desert
!As luck (or incompetence) would have it I have a non-sand coloured building in the photo, and no temple
Contraflows often began and ended without warning; just a gap in the central reservation and some compressed sand marked with tyre tracks invited drivers to the opposite carriageway. Sometimes the invitation was unclear, different drivers took different views and for a while traffic travelled in both directions on both carriageways. In other places the road disappeared completely.

Where has the road gone? On the way to Jaisalmer
The scrub became scrubbier, the sand sandier and the trees more stunted, but there were always people. The Thar Desert covers a third of Rajasthan, making it one of India's more sparsely populated states, but in India such things are relative and the Thar is said to be the world's most densely populated desert. There were road workers, machinery and dumps of sand and gravel, ….

Roadworks on the way to Jaisalmer
Here, constant sprinkling with water to keep down the dust has created mud
…people ambled along the roadside going I know not where and shepherds led small mixed flocks of sheep and goats.

?With all that desert to use why does the shepherd lead his flock down the middle of the road
We passed isolated tea stalls and a group of people standing in the shade of a tree in the middle of nowhere waiting for… well who knows? Cattle wandered through the scrub finding something to graze on - they looked healthy enough - and we saw the odd dog, and one wild pig but in the first 100 km there were no towns and no settlements large enough to be properly called a village.

Cattle often stroll across the the road as though they had right of way - and in this overwhelmingly Hindu country, I suppose they do
After a couple of hours, we passed a substantial electricity substation and shortly afterwards a truck stop, the road lined with tea stalls and cheap eateries. Dozens of dwellings clustered around, but I have no idea how the residents made a living – they could not all live from selling tea and samosas.

Around the half-way mark we passed the edge of a town, a large cinema sitting beside the road. This was Phalodi, home to 50,000 people and a centre of the salt industry. It also holds the record for the highest shade temperature recorded on the Indian subcontinent (51° in May 2016).

Coming the other way was a convoy of twenty or thirty vehicles, cars, SUVs and trucks, all crammed with people. 'Muslim community,' Udem said, 'probably a wedding.'

50km on we paused for lunch at a roadside restaurant.

The roadside restaurant near Pokaran looks palatial
It looked impressive on the outside, a little more basic inside but, for a price, they produced the regulation samosas and lime soda. A small bus tour arrived and were served a set menu; again we were in the ‘agreed place for feeding foreigners’ which accounted for the high prices (though not by European standards) and uninspiring food. We decided we needed a talk with Umed.

but is more modest inside...
We did not know it, but we were on the edge of Pokaran, a small town with a 14th century citadel, now a heritage hotel run by the local royal family. Being Jagadir of Pokaran is like being King of Uttoxeter, only sandier. More apocalyptically Pokaran, or the desert a few kilometres to the north, was the site of India’s first underground nuclear weapon’s test in 1974 and five further tests, including a thermo-nuclear device in 1998. There is currently a moratorium on testing.

For most of the last 50 or so kilometres the road was in good condition. There were regular signs of habitation, one village even had a name board. A lengthy section to the north of the road was occupied by a military base - ‘cut hard, cut deep’ to quote the unpleasant motto over the entrance. Not only was the Pokaran site nearby, but the Pakistan border was only 80km away so the area was of military importance, maybe that was why this section of road had been completed first - which did not mean it was obstacle free.

Nearing Jaisalmer
We were expecting to soon catch sight of Jaisalmer, its fort on a rocky bluff above the desert, but suddenly Umed turned left down a side road and a couple of hundred metres later we reached the Rajwada Fort, which we had expected to be in the heart of the city. The Rajwada Fort is a modern resort hotel, not a fort at all. It is not a bad resort hotel, as these things go, but I dislike the whole concept. We had been looking forward to staying in Jaisalmer’s historic centre and here we were, stuck out in a luxury ghetto for foreigners several miles away. I vetted the suggested hotels when organising this trip and changed a couple but had lazily assumed that because Jaisalmer has a fort in which there are hotels, then the Rajwada Fort….  - it was my fault.

The Rajwada Fort Hotel, Jaisalmer

We spent what little remained of the afternoon drinking gold-plated beer beside the pool.

Beside the pool, Rajwada Fort Hotel
In the evening we dined in the hotel (where else was there?) again eschewing the tourist buffet in favour of the à la carte. I am not sure how spicy Achaari murgh (pickle-style chicken) should be, it is cooked in pickling spices with plenty of chilli but most recipes include yoghurt which calms things down. This version was medium, pleasant enough but not desperately exciting. Khichdi is a melange of lentils, rice and spices, basically Indian comfort food. To give the restaurant the benefit of the doubt, it may have been our choices which we uninspired, not their cooking.

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