Jodhpur —-> Balotra. 107 km. Thurs 20th Dec.
Paratha is our Indian breakfast of choice these days, so if our accommodation will serve it early enough for us, we will always go for it. This was the case today, so after potato and mixed vegetable parathas and a large mug of chai we were off by 9am. Getting out of Jodhpur wasn’t too much of an ordeal other than the huge clouds of dust along the route from the shopkeepers who were all out sweeping. This seems bizarre when everything looks filthy to us with piles of rubbish along every street, and all it did was raise dust that stuck nicely to our suncream. But hey, if that’s how they start their day, we just have to roll with it. On the turn out of town I made the fatal mistake of looking behind me to find a break in the traffic to get onto the right road…I forgot my own theory of just focusing on what’s in front and I got caught for about 5 minutes unable to cross a junction. I then had to just close my eyes and brave it…and it worked…so back to my skiing training…just ignore what’s behind!
Once out of town we basically had a day of cycling a long straight road into the Thar desert towards Balotra, our destination for the night. I have never been in a desert before and I had the idea that it would be all sand and sand dunes with a few cacti plants thrown in. (I have obviously been watching too much Breaking Bad!). Although I learned yesterday on our Desert Park walk that cacti only grow naturally in North and South America I still expected to see lots of sand and a few random plants…but the reality was dry, dusty, arid scrubland with some wild deer, goats and cows – and some small housing settlements and villages. A really interesting landscape – and the people we met were all really friendly.
Nigel said in one of his earlier blogs that we weren’t going to mention our lunch stops unless they were different – and this one was. It wasn’t the usual Dhaba in terms of menu and we had no idea what the food was other than it was being served in newspaper and the place was packed. Needless to say, us turning up on bikes caused a stir. We tried to order at the counter but were told to take a seat (well the owner pointed at a table to tell us to sit down!). Nothing was forthcoming for about 5 minutes and we did see other people being served so we were starting to get a bit irate wondering what was going on…until a waiter told us to wait 5 mins. No problem – and we just said we would have 2 of what was being served. Five minutes later 2 plates of delicious spicy fritters arrived, which we scoffed and then ordered another portion! Well worth the wait. They were Kalmi Vada – a snack that’s a speciality in the Rajasthan area. Our first time trying so we must look out for them again!
We had a hotel pre-booked today so got to base at 4.15 to attract a crowd of “yoofs” as we unpacked our bikes. We are starting to get used to it, but it does make us feel a bit vulnerable when they are gathered around looking and pointing at the bikes and talking among themselves. The young guy on reception tried to convince us that the bikes would be fine outside the hotel until dark when we could take them in, but thankfully the manager arrived and we could put them inside in a safe area and lock them.
We went for a wander in town to check out food for dinner but had no success so returned to the hotel for room service, which seems to be the done thing anyway. Not ideal as we want to see more than the inside of a hotel room, but needs must!
Balotra —> Jalore. 90km. Fri 21 Dec.
We had our own breakfast in our room this morning as the hotel didn’t take orders until 9am, by which time we were already on the road, having already posed for the obligatory selfies with the hotel staff!
Getting out of Balotra wasn’t too difficult but it took us over a supposed river, which was more like Shrek’s swamp and very unpleasant – not the nicest start to the day! The landscape today was definitely more desert-like with plenty of sand and dust along the way and the roads were pretty awful. They started out OK but about 20km into our journey, the edges disappeared and we were confined to a 1.5 lane-road that was had tarmac but it made navigating oncoming traffic a bit challenging. This then turned into a series of partially-constructed roads with lots of sand and gravel with ongoing construction and roadworks adding to the dust and the chaos. We have since found out that this is a super highway that will connect Ballotra to the main Jaipur/Udaipur Highway!
A bit of a nightmare to be honest – and we were also going slightly uphill to add to the misery. But we soldiered on as best we could, getting off to push a few times when the sand got quite deep, but there were some nice mountains to look at, which made a nice change.
You have to feel for the people who live here …it’s such a harsh environment and many of the houses didn’t seem to have running water as they were carrying big containers from wells. And this is their winter-time. In summer the temperatures can hit 50+ degrees Celsius!
The last 15km into Jalore was a bit easier as the terrain was flatter and the roads were in better condition. We didn’t have accommodation booked and it took 5 hotels before we got a room…one place had a room available but told us we had to leave our bikes on the street outside, so that was a no from us…and as there was an open sewer at the front door it was probably a blessing in disguise anyway! In another hotel Nigel went in alone to ask about rooms while I stayed outside with the bikes. He spoke to the owner on the phone, agreed a price and room, came outside to tell me, and as we were about to start unpacking the bikes, a different guy from the one on reception came to us and said “no rooms available”. Not sure why as booking.com was showing 3 rooms available at the time (for a higher price than we were quoted) but we didn’t feel we wanted to beg to give him our money, so we left and venture to the poshest looking one in the town. The most expensive we have paid to date, but we didn’t care – we had a room and it also had a restaurant and the staff seemed nice. The fact that the shower was cold didn’t even bother us too much…Oh how our standards are adapting to our environment!
Other than selfie-mania one thing that we haven’t mentioned so far is the variety of reactions we get from people, both on and off the bikes….some just stare silently, others look on with curiosity, some wave furiously with lots of smiles, some ask for selfies or photos, lots of “hello”, “bye bye”, “where are you from?”, “how are you?”, “thank you”,”I love you” and other random English words shouted out as we cycle past, kids run after us or cycle alongside us, some people young and old just laugh out loud and point at us – obviously bemused by the absurdity of what we are doing – and the other 1% just completely ignore us. The whole thing is actually quite exhausting as it starts the minute we leave our room in the morning until we close the door in the evening – and even then it doesn’t necessarily end as we have had room service delivered by hotel staff who brought along a friend to “have a look” at us. However from all of this the most unsettling is when they are just quite blatantly rude and point at us and/or snigger to their friends or colleagues when they are serving us in a shop or at a hotel reception. Maybe the rudeness isn’t intentional, but it’s not a nice experience and can be quite intimidating, especially when we don’t know what they are saying – and it’s especially unnerving from people within the service industry. We are trying to be positive about it all and realise it’s a different culture, but it can be draining and depressing at the end of a long day when we just want a room and a shower. All part of the learning experience I guess.
Another thing I have to say is about the cows in the country, which are important in the Hindu religion and supposedly revered and worshiped by millions of people. But from what we have seen we don’t think they are well-treated at all and feel quite sorry for them as they mainly root around in rubbish for food. Granted you can buy food from sellers (who are generally their owners!) to feed these sacred animals so they don’t look starved, but in the countryside and cities they just seem to wander aimlessly eating plastic and looking very uncared for. Very sad!
Jalore —->Bankli (farm stay). 52km. Saturday 22 Dec.
Departed to the usual audience of onlookers at our hotel this morning….
…and we were on the road before 9am. Today was to be a shorter day as we were heading to a rural farm stay. The owner KP, who we had contacted on WarmShowers had very generously offered to host us for 2 nights en route to our leopard safari in Bera and we were quite excited to experience something different.
The roads weren’t quite as bad or as dusty as yesterday although there were still plenty of road works going on, so it wasn’t all plain sailing. We did however see a camel along the side of the road, which made it feel very desert-like!
We had to contact KP when we reached a certain village and he came to meet us in his jeep as Google Maps don’t quite get you to where his farm is. And what an oasis it is…
Having felt a bit jaded from our travel experiences and people interactions yesterday, this was just the tonic we needed. He runs this as a paying farmstay and had other guest there, so we all had a delicious home made lunch together with lots of interesting conversation. We had a chill out afternoon with some fantastic home-made samosas and chai for afternoon tea….European “cake-watch” has now been replaced by Indian “snack-watch”!
After a walk in the surrounding farmlands to watch the sunset, the evening was spent round a campfire learning more about Indian culture from KP and the other Indian guests over whisky, followed by another scrummy dinner. What a start to the Christmas weekend!
Bankli. 23 Dec.
After a breakfast of omlette, toast and poha (indian puffed rice) we were taken in KP’s jeep with the other guests into the nearby mountains to visit a Hindu temple in a cave. The views were stunning
…and when we arrived at the temple The Pundit (Priest) was performing a ritual, which involved a lot of bell ringing – I even got a blessing! KP gave us a fantastic précis of the caste system and Hindu religion in India, which I can only grasp as being similar to the British class system, but far more complicated. But it was a really interesting insight into a whole different side of India. He started by saying that Hinduism in its current form is more “religious” in a man-made way of following a set of rules rather than “spiritual”, which is more about an individual and is what Hinduism in ancient India (about 5000 years ago) was based upon. But about 1200 years ago the Brahmins (of blue house fame in Jodhpur) appointed themselves as the supreme religious rulers and the people to act as middle men between the lower castes and god. They forbade people from keeping the Hindu bible or “Gita” at home (so that they could keep control) and introduced the concept of worshiping in temples as well as worshiping idols. Even now you can only become a priest if you are part of a line of Brahmins! They then introduced/appointed the Kshatriyas (of which the Rajputs are part of this caste) as the warriors, rulers and administrators, the Vaishyas as the tradespeople and businessman (of which the Jains are part of this caste) and the Shudras as the labourers. This is obviously a very top-level overview of the caste system as it is much more complicated than this with thousands of different sub-castes within each of these categories, but it’s enough for us to understand at this stage. The hierarchy of the caste system still exists throughout India but apparently it’s not as strong as before because of cultural changes and developments such as democracy and technology for examples. Inter-caste marriages are much more common now than they used to be. The wedding that we attended (NOT gate-crashed) in Japiur was an inter-caste wedding and two of the other Indian guests here talked about their “love marriage” as opposed to an arranged one. They met each other at work, dated secretly and wanted to get married but because they were from different castes her father would not give permission…and it took 2 years before he finally relented and they are now happily married with a 4-year old daughter! A completely foreign concept to us but utterly fascinating and interesting. And likewise they were fascinated to learn that we choose our own partners, careers etc in the west and even that as woman I could leave home and live independently from the age of 17.
After our temple visit our afternoon was spent snoozing, relaxing and then a visit to Elephant Rock to watch the sunset…
…followed by beers around the campfire and another delicious dinner. Overall an amazing relaxing and educational 2 days with KP and his guests on his farm – and a start to Christmas weekend that we will never forget – thank you KP!