Going on a roadtrip though the Great Indian desert was merely an idea a month ago, and now I was behind the wheel living it. We were entering deeper into this dry land where history was etched so deep that time and progress had not been able not erase it. We were slowly unwinding and getting into vacation mode as we drove through the countryside passing colourful villages on the open roads. Switching the mind out of its daily concerns felt like trying to forget a bad habit to which it was addicted, and was suffering withdrawal symptoms as the spirit of Rajasthan was taking over. My wife Ekta had agreed to share half of the effort of driving, but I was actually starting to enjoy this drive myself. I had booked some Cheap flight tickets on a whim to Delhi from where we wanted to start the trip instead of Mumbai, and everything has fallen into place for the holiday to happen.
We were passing through the town of Chomu around lunch time. It was the largest town on the 8 hour drive to Bikaner from Delhi – we had decided not to take the road via Hissar. Chomu seemed like a dusty little town- some sort of an ugly hybrid between a village and a city with worst characteristics of both. But a rumbling stomach focused our minds to look for a place to eat. We drove into Chomu palace hotel right in the heart of this noisy chaotic marketplace hoping for atleast a decent meal. But we walked into an unexpected oases of calm, aesthetics and heritage right in the middle of that chaos.
The dining room was from another era with its tall ceiling and portraits of the various kings/ prince looking down at us sternly, as we enjoyed the Rajasthani hospitality. As we were served the ker sangri and laal maas, we also got a lesson lesson in history of the palace from the waiters as well as a rundown of all the people from Bollywood who have come here. This was also where bhool-bulayya, the Akshay Kumar starrer was shot. The food was tempered down on spice, and was delicious.
I am pretty sure that the modern demanding and well heeled consumers had forced niceness and aesthetics onto Chomu palace and probably made it even more beautiful than what it originally was, besides making them go easy on spices. Our unscheduled stop on day one was already feeling like a great omen for wonderful experience still to come. With a belly full of Laal maas, we were on our way to Bikaner, another 230 Km away.
We were off track by some 75 km. I had mostly been following the Nokia Drive directions in my Lumia 920, but had started to ignore the instructions as we passed Chomu. The audio directions in a British female voice was constantly asking me to take a U- turn every half a kilometre, and I should have listened. I had got the Phone recently and I had been impressed by how beautifully it had been put together, Nokia was sure to make a comeback with technology like this. For now I decided to pay more attention to what it told me to do.
We turned around and found the right road, but I realised that that sun would set before we reach Bikaner. I checked myself from getting into some sort of a pressure on time – this was a holiday, and I didn’t want to live by a clock. Bhavar Niwas Hotel, where we were staying, was in the old part of town and was difficult to find. The hotel sent a guy to help us navigate through the impossibly narrow and dirty lanes, but he told us not to get disheartened by the surroundings and assured us that the Haweli will be a great experience. And it was.
This place was smaller than the Chomu palace, but was more ornate. The showcase living rooms were done-up beautifully and took you back in time – you might just as well have be sitting there 500 years ago staring at the elaborate chandeliers, that classical mantelpieces, and the furniture. The rooms were wonderful, and the staff was excellent and almost made you feel like royalty.
Slept deeply in the silence of night, something that I wasn’t used to anymore staying in Mumbai for so long. For day one on the road, this wasn’t bad.
The standout piece was a glider on display inside the palace, which looked even more strange when I was told that this was merely for display and had never flew. It has been presented as a token of appreciation by the British to the king for lending his army to fight the second world war. I hope that his army did better job of fighting than this glider did of flying.
The bizarre glider was topped by another ‘Mehal’ that one of the kings had built, and had clouds and thunderbolts painted on the walls to remind him of rains in this dry land – I was almost tempted to ask what did the king smoke up, but this was a land where honor was most important asset, and you didnt want to cross swords here with anyone. The guide had been showering me with some extra attention, and I knew he was angling for a special tip when he started sharing his salary details as part of the historical tour. Looking at his talent, tips would have been a rare occurrence in his life. Anyway, I tipped him and got a big huge smile out of him. We were on our way to Jaisalmer.
We were cutting through the driest parts of Rajasthan now. I had booked a desert camp amidst the sand dunes, but maybe we had gone overboard by booking it for 3 nights. As we passed Jaisalmer towards Sam-sands the sun was setting and my heart was bursting with sheer exhilaration as we drove into the sun seeing it slide down into the barren horizon .
The dry clean air seemed seemed to have accentuated the sunset colors into a spectacular display.
We drove into our camp well past the sunset and I was ready for the Swiss tents in the middle of sands as they had been advertised. Felt like we were the last ones to the party, the remaining thousands seemed to have reached there well ahead of us. There were a dozen camps adjacent to ours, and there was even parking problem – not a good sign. Looking at our tents, the Swiss would have sued them for using their name to name their accommodation. I was relieved in a way since now I knew that we wont stay here for 3 nights whether we get the refund or not. It was night time, and we joined the rest of the people sitting in a large circle in the sand around a stage. The local artists were singing folk music, but the noise was too loud. They were trying to drown out the music coming from the neighbouring camps. The performances were tacky, done by rote and nothing connected with you. The food was bad, the bed-sheets smelled, and the tent looked poorly maintained, and color scheme was a colour-blind guys delight; or maybe I was sulking since the owner refused to refund me the money for one night. I decided to make most of what we had, and planned to go for a 12km run surrounded by the desert dunes at dawn. This was part of my preparation for the upcoming half-marathon run back in Mumbai. I was excited.
Alarm rang. I fumbled in the dark, dress up and stepped out of the tent fully awake with nervous energy of running in a strange place, and this was the great Thar Desert. My hands were freezing and the cold water in the bottle I was running with made it worse – this was peak winters, and the temp was around 5 degrees. It was still dark as I started out. A guy on a camel joined me matching my running speed and struck up a conversation. He was from a nearby village. As we were chatting his camel fell behind me while I continued to maintain my pace. He cursed the camel and caught up with me again. He told me that the camel was acting lazy because he wanted to eat the food that he was carrying with him, but he would only feed the camel when they reached the camp. The massive camel legs running right next to me were taller than my whole body, its gait had a strange rhythm to it and felt like as if an alien was running next to me. Soon the camel rider reached his camp and without any farewells he just turned away from the road and I was again alone on the road.
I passed the 5km mark in the run, and spotted a little arched structure half a km off the road in the sands. I ran towards it through the soft sand. The sun was about to burst out in the horizon. As I sipped my water catching my breath the orange ball emerged. I had goose bumps seeing natures amazing spectacle, the ball of fire that has baked this land for millions of years and which will nourish every living creature on earth this day. I watched it silently rise up as i stood there in awe, in silence and alone, looking at it get brighter till I couldn’t look at its brilliance. I returned back to the camp as every one was waking up and the camp was coming to life.
We drove into the city in the morning. The fort in Jaisalmer was small. Our guide was one of the 5000 odd people who lived inside the fort. The fort is a private property. The guide was known to all the store owners inside clearly and seeing him the prices of everything went up. Everywhere we went they all had a small word exchange with him, though he was trying to keep a professional distance from all.
The guide told us that he was about to get married to a girl in Chennai. I wasn’t sure if this had to do with the poor sex ratio of Rajasthan that has made it tough for boys to find brides anymore locally. I asked him this but he denied it, and even claimed to have 6-7 girlfriends, including so many firangies who wanted to marry him but he wont agree. He said it with such conviction that I didn’t have the heart to challenge him. Meanwhile, The Bengali families had declared war on Rajasthan and their advanced forces were all over the fort. With their monkey caps and the heavy sweaters and loud chattering they lifted up the spirits of everyone wherever they went.
The fort tour was over pretty quick. We wanted to go to a place called Trio but all the locals warned us that it was ‘100% non veg’, implying that even if they served Veg food, it would be tainted by evil spirits or something because Non-veg was cooked in the same kitchen. A local shopkeeper suggested that we could try a small lunch place which served home cooked meals and was only open for a few hours during lunch. The day was hot, and we walked there and find a small unassuming little place in a dirty lane. The food was delicious and simply cooked. We hogged, and soon a line formed outside this place. He has just 5 little tables to serve his guests, but people were willing to wait patiently.
We were back at Sam sands and were shifted to a new tent which was much better. We were ready to go out for our package camel ride, as the sun was about to set. Crowd of a few thousand people has already gathered and occupied the tallest dune they could find.
The colors in the sky were spectacular. It was well worth braving the crowds, the tourist grabbing locals, the persistent sellers of Kingfisher beer and wafers on the dunes. We returned to the camp to the same stale entertainment that we saw yesterday. The food was bad again. I was hoping for rest of our journey to be better than this, and tried to fall asleep to the sounds of music blaring from the neighbouring camps. We had dreamt of sleeping in the ‘Swiss’ tents under the stars on the great thar desert, but hadn’t planned for Gangham style to be the background music to it all.
(End of Part-1)