The night train from Delhi was almost empty and I slept well, waking just in time for my stop. At the station a number of rickshaw-wallahs all wanted to take me to Harasar Haveli, for a mere ten rupees - which is a sure sign the place pays commission. I figured I'd take the ride then give them the slip and stay somewhere else. When I got there, though, the place looked pretty impressive so I thought I'd check it out, expecting it to be out of my price range. The personable owner showed me to a lovely room for just 250 Rs. It had a mattress that was inches thick, rather than centimetres, and the large bathroom was spotlessly clean, with gleaming taps; I didn't have the cheek to barter, and said yes.
My original reason for coming to Bikaner was to do a camel safari, but on my arrival I conculded that it was indeed too hot to go on one; it's just as well, really, because I've not stopped since I got here, and don't know where I would have found the time for a trek into the desert. The desert surrounding Bikaner is not the romantic type, full of sand dunes; but rather the dusty sort, the land peppered with low, scrubby trees. I still felt its appeal, though. The town itself has a spacious feel . . . and the worst roads that I've come across in India; they are shocking, and make walking preferable to a bumpy rickshaw ride, where distances allow.
My first stop was at Junagarh Fort, where I joined some home grown tourists for a guided tour. In my group were an ethnic family in colourful clothes, who always seemed to want to stand in the exact spot that I was occupying. There were also two, tall, Sikh soldiers in uniform, who held hands for most of the tour. The fort had been home to the local ruling family, and we were shown ornately decorated bedrooms, and private and public audience rooms. One courtyard had 52 latticed windows, one for each of the ruler's wives to view the proceedings below. Decorations included Belgian glass, Italian marble and Dutch tiles. The guide gave me my own private translation of everything . . . except something he said about the English when we were on the roof, that everyone laughed about.
I walked back to the hotel afterwards, to rest a while as I was acclimatising to the dry heat. I ventured out a little after four, intent on seeing the old city, but the owner advised me I'd be better off waiting an hour for the day to cool; it was surprising what a difference that hour made. I'd like to point out that I am definitely not complaining about the heat - I prefer it to cold by far - it just took me a day to get used to it again. I should have taken a rickshaw to the gates of the old city, a couple of kilometres away, as the sun was too low for decent photos by the time I'd walked there. I did get to see a fine example of Indian impatience at a level crossing. The barriers were down as a train was due, but this didn't stop the bulk of the crowd ducking under the metal bar, passing bicyles over it, or sliding them - and the odd motorbike - underneath. I have to concede that the train was a long time coming, and slow moving when it did arrive, but still it tickled me.
I was exhausted that evening, so had an early tea and was in bed by half seven. The previous two nights had been spent on trains and, although I had actually slept quite well on each of them, I was looking forwarding to sleeping in a bed - especially such a comfortable one. I awoke refreshed the next morning, and ate breakfast at the rooftop restaurant before setting off to one of the regions big attractions: the rat temple at the nearby town of Deshnoke. I'm keen on rats, so I was looking forward to the temple, expecting lots of plump, healthy rats with shiny coats running around the place. The 30 km journey took around an hour on the bus, and I was surprised by how much attention I attracted on it, after all Rajisthan must have more visitors than most of India. Again it was just a case of acclimatising to it, and by the return journey I was able to cope with the staring much better.
The entrance of the temple was covered in wonderful carvings in a stone that I'm going to hazzard a guess was alabaster; it had that translucent look to it. The silver door had a Roman-looking bust set into it, and already I was impressed. I entered into the domain of the rats - being extra careful not to stand on one, as you have to "donate" a gold statue of a rat if you do. The rats are worshipped as being the reincarnations of souls saved from Yama, the god of death, and it is considered auspicious to have them run over your feet, or eat food that has been pre-chewed by them. Beforehand I had been all up for this . . . that was before I caught site of the creatures. I've never seen such a sorry, scabby looking bunch, many minus eyes and clumps of fur, but with the added bonus of tumors around their tails. I swear your average street rat is ten times healthier than these venerated vermin. I kept thinking of the bubonic plague the whole time I was in there. Still, I enjoyed it though; India's like that, you go "Ugh, gross - that was great!"
Rodents were just the morning's highlight; the afternoon held the delight of the Camel Breeding Centre, ten kilometres out from the town. I'd got the hotel to arrange a rickshaw for me - they're so helpful here - and set off along the mind-bogglingly pitted roads, wishing I was wearing a sports bra. I paid my entry fee, turned down a guide, and then rushed off to photograph two camels having sex. Sad bunny that I am, I even ran, worried that I might miss out on this Kodak moment. I needn't have fretted though, as once one male had shot his load they brought another one over to mount the female, while she remained seated. He made horrible bubbling noises, that I though at first must be coming from some dodgy plumbing, and his tongue lolled an impossible way out of his mouth. She was very vocal; I think she was faking it, to be honest.
I managed to drag myself away, and went to look at stalls containing mothers and their sucking offspring, and watched a man milking one camel, presumably for the little on-site cafe that serves up a menu of camel-milk products. A little later around two hundred camels came in from the desert, and I got prime position on a concrete block surrounded by troughs, for a few shots of the thirsty creatures drinking. I rounded the outing off with a nice cup of camel-milk cappuccino; it tasted fine, but I couldn't help but grimace at the thought of it. That evening I dined on the roof, enjoying the singing, music and dancing put on by a local quartet.
I began my third and final day in the town by catching a rickshaw to a Jain temple in the old city; another bone-jarring journey. A service was underway in the first temple, and I got told off for entering the grounds whilst it was on. I went instead to Laxminath temple next door, where I was welcomed inside and show around by the priest (he said he was the priest, although he seemed awful scruffy to me). The walls of the temple are painted with flowers and figures, and clouds drawn by someone who had obviously never seen clouds. I was allowed up onto the roof, where I got a view over the boxy houses, and was able to get my barings . . . which seem to have come into their own whilst I've been in India. I opted to walk back to the perimeter of the old city, enjoying the relatively empty streets and interesting architecture.
The owner of the hotel had suggested I visit the town of Gajner (pronounced something like Gazh-near - I couldn't quite get the hand of it), where there is a lake and wildlife. I returned to the bus stand, and eventually showed them the name of the town written down; they thought I was asking for a bus to Kashmir. The told me to get on the bus at the end, so I did. About half an hour into the journey, the conductor came around, and I tod him where I wanted to get off. He was shaking his head, so I showed him the name of the place. He continued shaking his head, and then it became apparent that I was on the wrong bus. Oh dear. Well there was bugger all I could do about it but laugh, and I figured through sign language (Sod's law decreed that this was one of the rare times when there was not a single English-speaker around) that he'd drop me somewhere convenient, and I could return to town and start again. We were driving through sparsely populated desert, so I guessed that was why he hadn't dropped me off straight away.
Ten minutes later I saw a sign for the town I wanted to go, pointing down a different road. It turned out not to be a major drama; the bus I was on by-passed the town, that was all. They dropped me at a junction just 2.5 km away, telling me to wait for a bus or auto going that way. Bugger that, though, I started walking alongside the road, enjoying the feel of the heat and the crunching sensation as I broke the crust on the sand. Solitude and peace: two things that are in short supply in India. It was lovely. I'd gone a good way when a bus trundled up behind me, and decided I may well rue waving it on, so I jumped on board - where the passengers seemed a little surprised to have picked up a white girl in the middle of nowhere.
Two minutes later the conductor relived me of five rupees and told me to get off. I appeared to have slipped into the Twighlight Zone, as I was in a small town where there were no people visible, and no noise - not even a cow. I followed the road in the direction the conductor had shown me and, after some time, passed through gates of the Gajner Palace Hotel. The guard pointed me in the direction of the restaurant, and there I was accosted by a man who told me I had to pay a 100 Rs entrance fee, which entitled me to a free tea or coffee and cookies, and the privaledge of sitting on the terrace, overlooking the lake. I asked to see the terrace, and was not impressed, so declined his offer, feeling a little disheartened. I asked how I could get to the other side of the lake, and was told that this was not possible. Anything is possible!
Plotting away, I thanked the man and left and, once I was out of sight of the guard on the gate, ducked into the undergrowth, where I encountered the first of many peacocks. Unusually for India, these still had their tails; most peacocks I've seen over here appear to have been "harvested"; peacock-tail fans are widely available. Being careful not to impale myself on the spikey trees, I made my way to the shore of the lake, dodging behind trees to try and remain out of sight of the hotel. I startled a number of deer-like things and birds, and a couple of giant hares that I completely failed to get a photograph of. I found a good place to sit, in the shade and out of sight, and settled down to some wildlife spotting. If it hadn't been for the fact that they were filming a Bollywood flick in the hotel, the director's instructions and music booming out into the still afternoon air, it would have been a very serene spot.
After some time I went for a wander, spotting black buck, with their distinctive horns, donkeys, and a number of other creatures. It was great fun - made all the better because I wasn't meant to be there. Once I'd had my fill, I walked more blatantly, not caring if they spotted me and booted me out. There were more people in the village as I walked back through, and I stopped at a little store to buy some water and check whether the bus would come through. The magic word, "bypass", told me it would not, so I happily retraced my steps, seeing three busses go along the distant road as I walked; at least they were frequent enough.
I was surprised to hear a rumbling behind me, and flagged down the over-full bus . . . to be told they were heading the opposite way, once they reached the junction. I was encouraged aboard, one man telling me, "me same" - he was also getting a lift to the junction, then heading to Bikaner. I held on nervously with one hand, half out of the open doors of the bus, trying to lean back inside . . . having to push myself against the groins of the men further inside the bus, that being the lesser of two evils. At the junction the friendly bunch shouted and waved to me, and the man who was going my way escorted me across the road. A guy who had a little English, and ran a small store at the junction, brought out a chair for me to sit on, and assured me that the bus would be along in seven minutes; most precise.
I sat and smiled, surrounded by a small group of men who squatted around me. They asked my country, and told me that England had lost the second cricket match in the series of one-dayers. It was a little surreal, but they were nice, and I certainly didn't feel at all threatened, as the sun began to set. The guy sold, amongst other things, the little packets of paan, which people chew. In Myanmar, those chewing betel had done so in its more natural form - a leaf, betel nut, tobacco and lime. Here it comes in ready-mixed sachets, and I'm not sure whether it's the same thing or not. Anyway, he insisted I have some, and it seemed rude to refuse, so I chucked the red crystaline substance in my mouth, just as the bus showed up.
The bus was quite full, but there was an aisle seat I was able to squeeze onto. This was fine, except that I was unable to reach a window to spit the juices out of, and I certainly wasn't going to spit on the floor. Surpressing a smile, lest the red juice escape from the corners of my mouth, I fugured I'd just have to swallow it. I gulped half of it down, unchewed mostly, then felt a pain in my chest - I don't know whether it had anything to do with the stuff I was chewing, but I suddenly remembered reading that there was one type of paan that you should on no account injest; I hoped this wasn't it! Well I'm still here, so it can't have been. I breathed slowly, around the pain, and in time it subsided, so I swallowed the rest of the wretched stuff quick, and washed it down with half a bottle of water. What an interesting day!
I'm off to Jodhpur tomorrow on the train, but I'll carry fond memories of Bikaner with me, and a wish one day to return.
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