Working our way into the warren of the tangled streets we burrowed into the Blue City. Overlooked by the massive fort above, we spent a couple of days losing ourselves amongst the cubist fascination of blue havellis and the squared off buildings of Jodhpur.
We took a trip into the immense fort, one of the few tourist attractions we’ve visited that actually works the way it’s meant to, great information, well looked after and properly thought out. Definitely due to the private funding by the Maharaja’s family. It seems most sites paid for by the Indian Government are on roads to nowhere. The unfortunate downfall of so many similar places throughout the country.
After making our way around the many beautiful buildings and courtyards of the fort, we watched sunset over the city from above. Stumbling down the steep hill we were lured into a small havelli where the son of the house told us of his mother’s delicious 35rp thali. His brilliant marketing hooked us in and we followed suit ordering the most expensive 200rp thali and beer! The daughter of the household also trapped Jodie into having some henna done and then she forcefully abused me with the semi permanent dye! writing the typical tourist stamp of the ‘Om’ symbol on my palm. We left feeling we may have been ‘had’ a little. Albeit our bellies were pleasantly full, we were a little pissed and only slightly pissed off!
Having made the decision to change our plans to cycle out into the desert, we booked the night train to the fortified desert city of Jaisalmer.
We had been recommended a hotel by a chap in Jodhpur. Booking meant we didn’t have to defend ourselves against the relentless touts waiting like hyenas at the railway station. We arrived at 5am and were picked up by a strange little man in a tuk-tuk. Our weariness meant his over friendliness wasn’t quite tickling our bullshit receptors yet. Making us complimentary chai as we watched the sun rise over the golden city was a nice touch. Although when it came to checking in we realised the reasons. The insipid Little Jonny was a very hard sell on his Camel Safari tours. We battled hard for a decent price, and as it was the main reason we’d come to Jaisalmer we relented and booked onto one of their tours. His pushiness leaving a sour taste in our mouths. Despite our negativity towards the hotel itself, the camel safari was a great experience. Dropped 50km into the remote desert environment, ourselves along with two Canadian guys met our camels and their drivers.
Armand the leader with a particularly regal air, and then Gordon, the more feral camel man, an opium smoker and someone obviously used to living in the harsh desert environment. His continual grimace giving the impression of someone who has ‘seen things’. The two men were great company and leading our small train of great lumbering beasts we headed out into the vast desert.
Camels are uniquely bizarre animals. Huge in stature they appear to be the amalgamation of several different species. Hind legs of a horse, the long swinging neck of a giraffe, chewing motion of a large cow, the muzzle of a huge rabbit or kangaroo, and the balding mullet hairstyle of Terry Nutkins! Their strangely folding double knee joints, patches of rough elbow skin for sitting on and their fantastically cushioned feet make for an animal so strange we were sure by the end that they were aliens!
Hauling ourselves onto the hump straddling saddle, we clung for dear life as the beasts mechanically raised themselves to a standing posture. A few metres off the ground and the novelty of the ride takes over. Soon enough the pain and discomfort overwhelm the excitement! The inelegant gait of the lumbering animal chaffs the insides of your legs and numbs the behind! Being covered in camel snot and scared for your life as the animal shakes and scratches itself with one of it’s legs is all part of the fun! We trekked through vast arid scrubland, passing the endless wind turbines and out into the sparseness of the dunes. Being surrounded by nothing but huge waves of rippling sand is quite an experience.
Climbing the curving untouched dunes we made our tracks into the unknown. Cooking over a camp fire in our valley of sand, eating delicious chappatis and drinking sweet chai we watched an alien sunset. Dulled by the dust storms on the horizon, the sun lost it’s intensity and appeared like a huge yellow moon, dipping below the flat land as the warmth and light was filtered from the landscape. Chatting while wrapped in blankets around a camp fire we relished being alone and hassle free for the first time in India! Falling asleep, the moon illuminated the sky unfortunately blocking the stars, although waking at 4am the glowing satellite had set. We spent a while wiping the blurriness of sleep from our eyes and gazing, totally overwhelmed into the vastness of tiny twinkling lights. Stars filled the whole sky as far as the eye could see.
After another long hot morning riding the camels, no-one argued for more when we took a long lunch and waited for our jeep to pick us up again!
After a few days in the confusing Golden City we returned to the Blue and soon to be Rainbow City! We were in Jodhpur for the brilliant Holi festival. Celebrating all manner of things, ancient Hindu stories, the upcoming harvest as well as the simply joys of water and colour. The first evening we enjoyed the closeness of the local community, all the families near our guesthouse gathered around a bonfire made of cow dung, set alight to commemorate the story of Holika and Prahlad, the firelight representing good over evil, the height of the flames are also a good luck blessing for next years harvest, so its a good job cow shits very flammable!
We spent the twilight hours being doused with colourful powder from all sides by the lovely children of the local families. Invited to carry on the celebration later, the whole street descended on the house of a new-born baby. The poor thing looked terrified as the room filled with people stained in different colours. The men of the families beat a stick above the child’s head, chanting a ritual right of passage, blessing him with good luck and bravery through his life.
The festival culminates in an energetic fun filled frenzy, everybody throws coloured powder and water at anyone they see!
The next day we truly got involved in the colourful riot, mopeds of purple and orange people sped by, canoning us with vibrant dye powder and colourful liquid.
Anyone and everyone is fair game during the festival of Holi! We morphed into giggling human rainbows.
Ducking out of the madness we drank coffee dusted in colour. As the day hotted up we joined a street party, dancing in the hot sun to loud bouncy music, buckets of water drenched us and bottles of dye changed our cheery rainbows into a sticky brown mess!
Then came the thick indigo dye that was pasted all over our faces. We had been well and truly ‘holi’d’. Such a fantastic and exhilarating experience. As the heat rose we went back to our guesthouse for a beer, the sun baking the colour into our skin, giving us the impression of ancient tribal warriors.
After a painfully long time scrubbing in the shower we gave up, joining the other pink tinged people on the rooftop. Hungrily enjoying dinner as we listened to the intense drumming down below and watched as a huge electrical storm engulfed the sky above. It felt like the whole universe was celebrating!
After the unsettling riding experiences of the desert we were apprehensive to carry on. Making our way out of Jodhpur, leaving the multicolour stained streets behind, it wad much quieter than normal. Everyone nursing and scrubbing their Holi hangover! We rode south towards the Bishnoi villages. A group of small communities, supposedly nature loving and skilled craftspeople. As we weren’t in a tourist jeep tour we cycled through the real village. Disappointingly we realised these villages are no different to anywhere else. Litter plagues everywhere, children begging foreigners for money, sweets and the ubiquitous ‘school pen’. The idea of the nature loving cult has seemingly been swallowed by more and more shops aimed at the tourist dollar.
Riding the long straight roads we came across a huge crowd by the side of the road. Visiting one of the most incredible temples we’ve seen. A crashed Royal Enfield motorcycle is enshrined in glass, a bustle of pilgrims circle the machine, offering alcohol and praying for a safe onward journey. Legend has it that I’m Banna was riding along after a fair bit of drinking, the poor chap hit a tree and died. The police recovered the motorbike, yet in the morning the machine had returned of its own accord to it’s resting place. This supposedly happened several times and now the Bullet Baba seems to be one of the more unusual and most visited shrines around!
Another few days riding towards and into the lovely Aravali mountains. Pedalling through more small tribal villages, the grimaces we expected turned out to be happy waves and excited greetings, as one child noticed our passing the rest would soon catch on and before we knew it a class of giggling children would be screaming towards us to wave as we passed. We were so relieved to feel a degree of acceptance once more.
The rolling landscape of sand coloured stony peaks and elegantly crafted dry stone walls passed by as we climbed a green forested pass. The first time since the South of India that we’d had shade from leaves!
Riding the long undulating ridge over the mountain range we had to don our dust masks. The road was being widened, rubble and sand strewn all over. Ironically the widening works made the actual road narrower! We were pushed ever closer to the clouds of dust being swept up by the thundering juggernaughts. Mixing with the road dust were plumes of fine particles from literally 20km of side by side marble merchants. Mining the precious building material and selling it astonishingly cheap next to each other along the hilltop highway. The result being fine mountain views and a nice new layer of crusty grime coating our skin.
Nevertheless we were soon descending from the dusty hills, past ancient temple villages, hidden from the tourists eye they were in turn serene and calming and as energetic as can be.
The ancient Eklingji, a beautiful Jain monument sat on a remote hilltop and the buzzing Nathdwara. A huge temple complex with as much happening inside as a full sized village. Temple bakery and kitchens sprawled with people next to busy offering rooms and halls of waiting pilgrims. Both utterly delightful and bewildering to wander around.
Templed out we descended towards our final bicycle destination in India, Udaipur. The White City….