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Here I go again...

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jaipur - 18 January 2016

sunny 30 °C

Here I go again - to the overpopulated, overwhelming and over-endowed (god-wise) land that is India. I love it. My wife doesn't. So, it’s here I go again, rather than we!

The original plan was to travel with those inveterate bloggers the Grey Haired Nomads (who double as my lovely elder brother David and his even lovelier and younger wife Janice). We were going to follow, very roughly, the course of that holiest of rivers, the Ganges, from near its source high in the Himalayas in north-west India to its delta in the mangroves of the Sunderbans, south of Kolkata in the east.

Billy Connolly put paid to that idea!

You see, I had a choice of attending the Makar Sankranti festival in Haridwar or accepting my daughter’s generous gift of tickets on around the same date to what was likely to be the farewell tour of the wonderful ‘Big Yin’, my all-time favourite comedian and raconteur. Billy Connolly, you see, has had prostate cancer and he’s now in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease (which he wishes 'effing Parkinson had kept to his effing self!').

I chose Billy. The Ganges will be around for a good while longer. Billy, alas, won’t be!

So, our Ganges trip has been put on the back-burner. For now, this - my tenth visit to incredible India - will involve sticking to Rajasthan, but I'll be seeing unfamiliar places and almost always travelling alone.

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I've been to wonderful Rajasthan so many times - but how on earth could my past trips have missed the popular hill-station of Mount Abu, the fortress of Jaisalmer, the dusty towns of Bikaner and Ajmer, and holy Pushkar? Well, my only excuse would be that India’s a big country and I guess I’ve avoided, rather than missed, this most arid desert part of west Rajasthan. I'll certainly be making up for that avoidance during the next few weeks.

My first few evenings will be spent in the company of my dear friend Lajpal, currently in Jaipur on a training course for his new career as a senior officer in the state government. We’ll then travel with his wife Rajshri and two-year-old daughter Dhruvi to spend the night with his parents at his home in Sadri, near Ranakpur (the place at which I first met the boy Lajpal 18 years ago - see 'Life is like an ice cream!'. Next day, we’ll have lunch with his uncle Khuman at his fort in Gundoj and drive on with him to Mount Abu. Khuman was educated by Christian brothers at Mount Abu, his youngest son Shibu runs a small hotel there and another of my friends is Shibu's manager. So I won’t be short of knowledgeable guides for my short stay. Lajpal has to return to Jaipur the following day, but I’ll spend another night there with Khuman before starting my two-week independent tour by boarding a train north to Bikaner.

Right now, I’m in Jaipur, Rajasthan’s hectic capital city. Last night, within a few hours of my arrival, I had dinner at my hotel with Lajpal, Rajshri and their daughter Dhruvi – the cute little bundle of fun I’d not met before. We caught up with the latest news and confirmed plans for a get-together I’d asked to be arranged, at my expense, for tomorrow night with invitations to all their friends and family living in the city, most of whom I'd met on past visits. It seems that around 25 people will be coming for dinner, drinks and noisy dancing. Partying, fortunately, isn’t expensive in India!

Jaipur, ‘The Pink City’, is very familiar to me. This time though I’m aiming to see places that tourists rarely get to. This morning, for example, I met a Facebook friend for the very first time outside his office at the local television station and rode pillion on his motorbike to nearby Smriti Van.

This is a vast public park, a conservation area for birds and butterflies with well-marked paths, trees and flowering plants galore, rocky outcrops and great views towards the city's eastern suburbs. It’s a tranquil and seemingly under-utilised place, where people can relax and enjoy a natural setting close to the city centre. What an amazing contrast to the noise, pollution and congestion of the nearby chronically-crowded streets!

It was chilly and misty at first but, as the sun came through, a handful of local people enjoyed their morning exercise or meditation in a few open spaces among the trees. There was only one ‘tourist’ in evidence – me!

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We spent an enjoyable two or three hours walking on and off the sandy trails, amid colourful flowers and shrubs, and climbing over rocks to reach the highest point, with the ever-present cries of wild Peacocks, Rose-ringed Parakeets and other heard-but-not seen birds as a joyous background. A highlight for me was a male Purple Sunbird in eclipse plumage that posed on a pretty shrub with tufted red blossoms. This, remember, is in the heart of one of the most crowded cities in all Rajasthan!

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Manish and I will be meeting again early tomorrow morning to explore lesser-known alleyways of the Old City as it wakes up to a new day.

This promises to be an interesting journey of discovery.

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For those who don't know the one and only Billy Connolly, click here and here for information about him.

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Accommodation:
Red Fox Hotel, Opposite MNIT College, Jawaharlal Nehru Marg, Bajaj Nagar, Jaipur Tel: +91 1414120101 Booked through Booking.com

I chose this 3-star hotel because of its proximity to my friend’s training centre, but it proved to be convenient for the airport (just 2½ miles/around Rs.450 by taxi pre-arranged through hotel), although farther from the railway station (5 miles/about Rs.600 by taxi pre-arranged through hotel).

It’s part of the small Lemon Tree Hotels chain. The building's a modern tower block with reception, café, fitness room and a ‘cyber kiosk’ on the first-floor, accessed by lifts from a spacious, secure car park. The 180 or so rooms are on the four or five floors above.

I spent three nights here at the beginning of my trip and a further night at the end. I had different rooms on each occasion but they seemed more or less identical - very clean, modern, air-conditioned, with a comfortable double bed, desk, plenty of power points, large wardrobe, free tea- and coffee-making facilities, and a well-equipped bathroom with shower, toilet, hand-basin, constant hot water, a large mirror and basic toiletries. The only downside was that the soundproofed windows were sealed shut and, on the fourth floor at least, the view of pigeon shit on the outside sill and external air-conditioning unit was unpleasant.

A good buffet breakfast was served in the Clever Fox Café. I also had dinner there - a wide choice from an à la carte menu or buffet at very reasonable prices. Service was outstanding. The hotel seems to have a commendable policy of employing people with disabilities, but the standard of training was such that most guests would never notice that some staff were actually deaf and dumb. Without exception, every one of the staff was polite, very obliging and efficient.

Cost: Double for single occupancy around Rs.3200 (£32) a night plus a variety of taxes adding a further Rs.300 or so. Good value for money.

Posted by Keep Smiling 02:40 Archived in India Tagged india jaipur rajasthan Comments (3)

A good time was had by all...

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jaipur - 19 to 21 January 2016

sunny 27 °C

By eight o’clock this morning, I'd hailed an auto-rickshaw and sped across an almost deserted Jaipur to New Gate, one of the ancient-looking arched entrances to ‘The Pink City’, the old town.

Everything was still asleep, the little signs of life just sweepers moving dust and rubbish from one place to another with their long swishing brooms, an occasional cycle-rickshaw with its pedalling driver cloaked in a blanket or a motorcyclist wearing a bandit mask against the cold. A few bedraggled street dogs wandered aimlessly in search of sustenance, uttering half-hearted barks at the approach of others.

It was cool and hazy, a lull before the rising sun brought heat to what would become crowded streets noisy with the constant sounding of horns and lawnmower-engined auto-rickshaws belching fumes into the already polluted air.

My new friend Manish arrived a few minutes later, quickly finding a suitable place to park his motorbike and a friendly stall-holder to guard his crash helmet for the next few hours. Cameras in hand, we set off to explore the mysteries of streets that would soon become bustling markets.

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As our walk among sparsely-populated roads and alleys unfolded, we encountered young candidates for jobs in the armed forces being drilled under arches outside closed shops, women threading flowers to make ritual garlands, and discarded coconut husks from a previous day’s trading. Later, stall-holders wheeled their barrows into position and shops prepared their displays of papaya, deep red carrots and all manner of other fruit and vegetables.

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Cyclists, cycle-rickshaws and camel carts carried loads that were far too big to be safe, and labourers with tools of their trade by their side waited in gangs near tea stalls hoping to be picked by contractors for a day’s work. Others said their morning puja (prayers) at one of many tumble-down shrines beneath the large trees.

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Almost two hours into our walk, shops began to reveal their vast stocks of fabrics, sweets and spices, pots and pans. City dwellers took breakfast and hot, sweet tea.

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Close to the Maharajah's personal entrance to the City Palace, where an historic iron canon pointed menacingly towards us and the guard read his morning newspaper, we stumbled upon a temple to Lord Krishna, up steep steps high above the shops. Actually, it was more than just a temple; it had views towards the City Palace and a Brahmin priest who ran an art gallery and small shop selling handicrafts. Manish, a resident of Jaipur for some 20 years had never been here before.

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By now, the city was warming up. Traffic was building, the sidewalks were ablaze with colourful goods and people. Nomadic tinkers plied their wares, cycle repairers repaired cycles, old men fed their goats and grandchildren on the steps to their homes, and kids of all ages in smart uniforms made their way to school.

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It was time for us to have a cup of chai and a shoe-shine, and to say ‘au revoir’. Manish, a fellow photographer of all things flora, fauna and human, had been great company during these two days. We had a really good time and will certainly be keeping in touch.

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After returning to my hotel and taking a much-needed nap, I prepared to be collected by Lajpal for tonight’s party. He’d organised for many of his relatives and friends to come for food and drinks. His brother-in-law Yogeshwar (Monty for short!) had made all the arrangements at a venue run by one of his friends.

It was originally intended to be a get-together with friends old and new, but by coincidence we were also able to celebrate yesterday’s 18th birthday of Lajpal's cousin Jaiwardhan (Yashu), a young man I’d last met with his brother and cousins nine years ago, and today’s birthday of Lajpal’s sister’s husband Dilip. That celebration took the customary form of candles being blown out on a cake to a sung chorus of ‘Happy Birthday To You...’, followed, less familiarly, by small pieces of said creamy, fruit-topped cake being forcibly fed to both birthday boys by everyone present!

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This was followed late into the night by much (actually too much) whisky drinking and hilarious, hands-in-the-air, hip-wiggling dancing to very loud Indian music.

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Three pictures above: My dear friend Lajpal, his wife Rajshri and their daughter Devanshi (known as Dhruvi)

It was certainly a very memorable evening - and a good time was had by all.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:29 Archived in India Tagged india jaipur rajasthan Comments (3)

Rocks and mountains

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Sadri » Jawai » Gundoj » Mount Abu - 22 to 25 January 2016

sunny 27 °C

I’m sure he shouldn’t have been driving after the excesses of last night’s party, but Lajpal came to collect me from my hotel in his little car, pristine white and shiny when I saw him receive it as a wedding gift, but now showing the scars of battles with Rajasthan’s roads and collisions with badly-driven cars.

We drove first to Rajshri’s parents’ home in a part of Jaipur that, despite having been there several times, I could never hope to find on my own in the maze of traffic-crammed streets. Then we were on our way – a five-and-a-half-hour journey would take us south-west on National Highway 8, skirting Ajmer and Beawar to Lajpal’s home in Sadri (near Ranakpur, if you’re looking for it on a map!).

Here, with financial support from his family and bank, he’s built a substantial house with rooms for his parents Gajendra and Ranveer, and - whenever he can get there - for his own little family of Rajshri and Dhruvi. There’s even an extra room, kitchen and terrace on an upper floor served by a separate staircase to provide income from letting. I hadn’t seen the house before but, after the customary tour, decided to call it ‘Pintu’s Palace’ (Pintu is Lajpal’s nickname). Rajshri cooked a meal for us all and we chatted and played a bit with Dhruvi before turning in to rest in anticipation of a long day ahead tomorrow.

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Tomorrow duly dawned, a bright but chilly Saturday morning. Bidding farewell to Gajendra and ‘au revoir’ to Rajshri and Dhruvi, three of us – Lajpal, his father Ranveer and me – drove off towards Jawai.

Jawai isn’t yet on the international tourist route, although it may be a familiar name to a knowledgeable few. The area’s famed for an unusually large number of leopards that inhabit outcrops of huge, grey, boulder-like rocks towering above the arid landscape and irrigated agricultural plains. Nobody seems to know precisely how many leopards live in the area but there are certainly a lot. Sightings, early morning and late afternoon, are almost guaranteed. They live on goats, sheep and roaming dogs, and seem to coexist happily with local villagers. Over time, I guess they’ve realised that man is not a threat hereabouts and have become habituated to the comings and goings of farmers and shepherds who, in turn, give them their respect (and their goats!). There have been isolated attacks on humans, but the last recorded time a man was killed around here was more than 150 years ago. Part of this area has only recently been declared an official leopard sanctuary.

We arrived too late in the morning for any hope of a sighting, although that wasn’t actually the purpose of our visit. We were here to see the Jawai Dam, western Rajasthan’s largest, and to look at a piece of land just outside the leopard sanctuary with potential tourism use.

The dam, a massive concrete structure spanning a wide valley, holds back water from the Jawai River to create a reservoir covering an area of 400 square kilometres and holding around eight million cubic feet of water to quench the thirst of sprawling Jodhpur city to the north-west.

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A nearby government-sponsored interpretation centre illustrates the diverse wildlife that now inhabits the lake, its backwaters and surrounding land – countless species of resident and migratory birds, deer, carnivores (including leopards of course) and a lot of large Mugger Crocodiles. We met the principal of a local girls’ school here – an enthusiastic amateur naturalist and photographer, who explained that there were no local wildlife guides to escort visitors, but he was aiming to change that by training some in his spare time.

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The area’s ripe for development of tourism, something recognised by one up-market chain which has built a small, deluxe tented camp here; it’s exorbitantly-priced but nearly always sold out. Inevitably, this has been followed by one or two farmers erecting tents on their land and small hotels promoting themselves based on the region’s culture and wildlife.

The piece of land we were inspecting, currently in agricultural use, would serve to expand the accommodation offering. Its wonderful views, great rocks and accessibility, yet to be fully assessed by architects, would certainly be ideal. As other plots have also been set aside for a similar purpose, however, the hotel or resort to be built here would have to be unique if it is to be successful in a short season interrupted by periods of intense heat and drenching monsoons.

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A great place for a bar! Whisky on the rocks anyone?

Our journey continued to Gundoj, where my good friend and Lajpal’s uncle Khuman, was awaiting our arrival in an office where, after retiring from his hotel management role, he now occupies the prestigious position of the region’s sarpanch. A sarpanch is the head of a village and the local self-government body, duly elected by the community. He is the point of contact between government officers and the village community. After he’d sorted out a complaint concerning a violent dispute between brothers, we proceeded to his fort in the village for lunch with his gracious wife Sailesh.

To my surprise, another of my friends, Hitesh, was there too. I’d first met him in 2007 at the marriage of Vinku, Khuman’s eldest son, where he was one of the official photographers. Then, we had to communicate through our mutual language of French. He was now managing a small hotel in Mount Abu operated by Khuman’s youngest son Shibu, which was where we were headed today. As Shibu was away escorting a party of French tourists in the south of the country, Hitesh would be driving Shibu’s car to Mount Abu. Khuman, together with Hitesh’s young cousin Rajat and I would be his passengers, while Lajpal would drive his own car accompanied by his father.

Suitably fortified, we rode on, climbing ever higher up the Aravali range on a congested, bumpy, twisting road to the town of Mount Abu, Rajasthan’s only hill station. Here, on a plateau at a height of around 4,000 ft (1220m) a resort has grown up over the centuries.

It’s now frequented predominantly by holidaymakers from the neighbouring state of Gujarat which, unlike Rajasthan, is a ‘dry’ (no alcohol) state. The very visible coach loads of visitors from Gujarat come here to dress up in traditional local costumes, have their photos taken and then party 'til they drop! The town overflows with hotels, cafés, restaurants, souvenir shops and other enterprises geared to parting these tourists from their cash.

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But life goes on, despite the tourists!

One enterprise closer to my own heart is Arkhey Vilas, the small hotel run by Shibu. It’s located in a peaceful setting away from the madness of the town-centre and unashamedly in the budget range with seven very basic rooms. The atmosphere is homely and the team of Hitesh, his two kitchen staff and three uniformed, do-almost-anything boys are helpful and very friendly. One of the boys, Bhawar, is always smiling; the other two, brothers Ganesh and Prakash, are learning to do so!

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We enjoyed two relaxing evenings eating, drinking and chatting late into the night around a camp-fire outside our rooms.

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While Lajpal had to return early to his training course in Jaipur, dropping off his father on the way, Khuman proudly took me to see his old school, where the Christian Brothers had taught him many years before. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been here since then, but said the buildings and the playground were just as he always remembered them.

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Later, Hitesh took Rajat and me on a short tour of Mount Abu. We walked the entire circumference of Nakki Lake at the town’s buzzing heart. The lake is surrounded by hills and is said to have derived its name from various gods digging the earth with their nails (nakh in Hindi). It’s a popular place for visitors to take a ride in small rowing boats or swan-shaped pedaloes.

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We also visited the most interesting of the town's many temples, the Jain Dilwara Mandir. Its fabulous 11th to 13th century carved marble pillars exceeded those of the temple at Ranakpur that has for long been one of my favourite Jain temples in all India.

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On our final evening, together with what seemed the entire population of the resort, Hitesh took Rajat and me to Sunset Point. From an overflowing car park, the world and his wife and many children walked uphill for over a kilometre, those less able or more affluent being pushed in wheelbarrow contraptions or carried on horseback (for a fee of course!). As the name suggests, we were all there to see the sun set - as indeed it did, in true Indian style: to much vocal encouragement, cheering and phone-photo clicking.

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On my last morning, Hitesh, Khuman and Rajat kindly took me to Abu Road station for the start of my independent two-week tour before they returned to Gundoj, from whence we had come. My train, the Bikaner Express, left at 11.55 a.m. Indian Time (i.e. 12.30 p.m.!) and would take about ten hours to complete its 545kms (338 miles) journey - yes, around 30 miles an hour counts as an express train hereabouts.

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Posted by Keep Smiling 09:48 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan mount_abu gundoj jawai Comments (5)

Rats, vultures and camels!

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Bikaner - 25 to 27 January 2016

overcast 27 °C

The train was already 35 minutes late as it pulled out of Abu Road station. I’d reserved a second class seat in what’s called '2A Class', an air-conditioned carriage with seats that convert to sleeping berths by night.

My seat number was occupied by one of a group of people who insisted that they’d also booked it. They hadn’t of course – they just wanted to sit together.

With the train conductor’s help, I was given a vacant berth nearby – in a private compartment still set up for night-time use, with one upper and one lower berth, complete with bed linen. Everyone was happy!

It was a daytime train but, as it noisily click-clack, click-clacked northwards, the scenery was monotonous dry earth, scrub and a few sand-coloured hills interrupted only by occasional litter-strewn towns and villages. It wasn’t long before the curtain at the grubby window was drawn, my head was on the pillow, my body was stretched out on the hard seat and I was covered by a surprisingly-clean white sheet and coarse brown blanket.

I dozed on and off, bashed from side to side and top to bottom by the carriage’s abrupt movements. Eleven hours after we’d left Abu Road, the train pulled into Bikaner – a mere hour behind its optimistic schedule. It was pitch black apart from the platform’s dim lights. A distinct smell of sewage filled the air.

My hotel had sent an auto-rickshaw to collect me (I always organise a pick-up in advance to save the hassle of having to find transport and haggle over the price – the last things I need after a long journey) and I was soon in a proper bed.

I awoke early the next day, 26 January - for a reason. It was Republic Day, one of only three national holidays. This one celebrated the Constitution of India coming into force in 1950.

Balloons in the national colours rose high into the sky, heralding what promised to be a big event, with dignitaries, a parade and a grand display at the huge stadium directly opposite my hotel.

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From my first-floor room, I watched all manner of participants enter a side-gate across the road – costumed dancers, motorbikes with contraptions mounted on the back, lorries decked out like carnival floats, smart uniformed soldiers with white cockscomb hats, groups of children in elaborate outfits...

After a hurried breakfast, I joined the throng of people aiming for the public entrance farther along the road. It seemed as though the whole of Bikaner and district were there.

It transpired that they were!

From the entrance gate, the crowds were funnelled into narrow entry points, the crush becoming alarming as hundreds surged forward. The entrance was soon in sight, just a dozen people ahead of me now.

A police officer put up his hand.

‘Sorry, stadium full’, he shouted.

‘Go back, go back!’, he screamed as the annoyed crowd pushed relentlessly towards him.

I was now face to face with him, his eyes displaying alarm that he might be overwhelmed at any moment. Other police officers rushed to his aid, threatening us by raising their four-foot long wooden sticks.

The pushing subsided. I wasn’t about to emulate some of the younger element in the crowd who were now scaling the walls and, despite mine being the only white face in the entire place, my pleas to be admitted were met with indifference and further waving of said four-foot long wooden sticks!

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Defeated, I returned to the hotel, escorted personally to a side gate by an apologetic policeman. He asked if I was from the BBC. With hindsight, perhaps my answer should have been something other than ' No, but I've travelled 4000 bloody miles to be here today!'.

I watched a bit of the parade from afar, from the hotel’s dusty rooftop terrace. I later learned that the highlight of the event had been when four police motorcyclists in a high-speed display collided while trying to do one of those flashy crossover manoeuvres, flying high into the air and landing, mostly unharmed, in a tangled heap. Oh to have been there!

*

It was now too late for a Plan B this morning, so I organised a taxi to take me later for an out-of-town tour to three places my research had told me were not to be missed.

First, my driver took me 30kms south to the Karni Mata Temple at Deshnok. Those of a nervous disposition should skip the next few paragraphs – serious mention of rats follows!

It’s said that, in the 14th century, Karni Mata in the guise of the multi-limbed goddess Durga performed miracles, one of which was to bring back to life her son who’d been drowned. However, she reincarnated him as a rat and decreed that all members of her family would return as rats when they died. Many of her descendants still live at Deshnok. They’re all looking forward to one day enjoying a new life at the Rat Temple!

Here, hundreds of small grey-brown rats the size of large, well-fed mice scurry about, doze in corners, and merrily eat and drink while bare-footed visitors tread gingerly around them. It’s considered lucky to see a white rat or to have one of the others run across your foot. I didn’t see a white one but numerous others did enjoy looking at my bare toes. Lucky me!

It’s not a place for the squeamish - but it's certainly fascinating!

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*

Next (and a further warning: this bit refers to dead animals and vultures), we drove back to a remote scrub area outside a small town named Jorbeer.

When a domesticated cow, buffalo, horse, goat or whatever dies, the carcass is brought to a dumping station to be devoured by dogs and vultures. In most of the country, dogs are on the increase while vultures have become extremely rare. It transpires that the drug Diclofenac, used to treat animals for inflammatory ailments, is fatal to vultures. With the drug now banned (but still available in limited quantities), the vulture population is struggling to recover. Not so here at Jorbeer, where the local council has ensured that only drug-free animals are dumped and, in consequence, vultures abound.

Birds circled high above the dumping area, a barren tract of land with clumps of thorn scrub and little else. A folded 100 Rupee note given in a handshake to an elderly guard admitted us to the area. The car, not equipped for this terrain, skidded along previous vehicle tracks in the sand. My driver warned against getting out of the vehicle because of roaming dogs, but two guys on a motorbike – researchers as it happened – waved me over to a group of birds that they were observing.

The air was filled with the sweet stench of rotting carcasses. White ribs and black horns scattered the ground. Among egrets and crows scavenging for maggots among the rotting flesh, vultures – Griffon and Egyptian predominantly – buried their heads beneath pieces of skin searching for the tastiest morsels. An inquisitive Grey Francolin scurried away as I approached. A pair of Woolly-necked Storks waited in line. A Steppe Eagle peered down at us from one of the few trees nearby. It was a macabre sight.

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*

Finally, and with regret that the two researchers asked me not to disturb the birds by venturing closer for a better look (and better photos), I retraced my steps and we moved on to the third of this afternoon’s sights.

This one was the National Research Centre on Camels, incorporating a camel breeding station where three main breeds are reared to maintain important blood lines.

I hadn’t realised that there were so many different breeds of camel. Here were hundreds of dark brown, single-humped Bikaneri Camels, the best for milk production, together with similarly-humped light brown Mewari, heavy-legged Kachchhi and athletic, racing Jaisalmeri Camels. There were also a few Bactrian Camels - the hairy ones with two humps.

There was a Milk Parlour there too, the milk cunningly collected by a man with a bucket from one teat while the calf suckled from another. Mum never knew that she'd been robbed!

The milk tasted to me like that awful skimmed cow’s milk my wife drinks, but with a not entirely pleasant, sharp after-taste. It might be better in sugary tea, perhaps. One hump or two, dear?

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*

My next morning in Bikaner was tame in comparison – just a quick tour by auto-rickshaw to some old havelis (tradesmen’s grand mansions of an age gone by) and the impressive Junagarh, a 16th-century fort built by a general in Mughal emperor Akbar’s army. This decaying edifice stands as a monument to the excesses of that era with its innumerable rooms, vast spaces and opulent decoration. There’s even an old aircraft in the high-ceilinged, pillared Durbar Hall – it’s made up of bits from two De Havilland DH-9 fighters awarded to the then Maharajah of Bikaner by the British government for services rendered during World War I. Bizarre!

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*

After lunch, I’ll be moving on from Bikaner just a half-hour drive south to Gajner, where I’ll be spending a night at a former maharajah’s hunting lodge on a lake.

*

Accommodation:
Hotel Desert Winds, Opposite the Maharajah Kami Singh Stadium, Bikaner Tel: +911512542202 or +91 9828067400 email: info@hoteldesertwinds.in Web: www.hoteldesertwinds.in I booked through Booking.com but they'll take bookings direct too of course.

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Hotel Desert Winds - on left of picture

I found this 20-room, 3-star hotel adequate but somehow lacking in character, perhaps because I seemed to be the only guest. Its website suggests that it’s on its own but there’s actually another similar hotel (Harasar Haveli) right next to it. Its location, however, was probably as convenient as any other for getting around by auto-rickshaw to the Old City and the Junagarh Fort.

My room was clean and comfortable and had all the basic necessities but was rather bare and basic. I stayed for two nights but had to ask for the room to be cleaned after the first night as this did not seem to be done automatically.

Wi-Fi was not usable in the room, but was reasonably good in the ground-floor restaurant.

Apart from in the late morning, when the late owner’s daughter-in-law was in the office, staff were conspicuous by their absence. This was particularly noticeable at breakfast time, when a long wait was necessary. Oh, and a one-bar electric fire was totally inadequate to take the chill off the always empty restaurant.

Cost for a double room for single occupancy was a reasonable 2000 Rupees (about £20) plus 16.4% tax per night.

Posted by Keep Smiling 07:29 Archived in India Tagged india bikaner rajasthan jorbeer deshnok Comments (2)

A pricey palace

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Gajner - 26/27 January 2016

sunny 28 °C

Imagine, if you will, a sprawling red-sandstone building with 45 guestrooms set around stately courtyards, terraces and balconies in over 6,000 acres of wooded land.

Imagine too the tranquil setting of such a stately edifice, beside a vast lake shimmering in the heat of the Thar Desert just half an hour’s drive from the noisy, smelly city of Bikaner.

Give a thought to its builder, Maharajah Ganga Singh of Bikaner, in the early-1900s entertaining British Raj dignitaries, like the Prince of Wales and the Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten. They were doubtless thrilled to slaughter anything that moved during their visits to this elegant hunting lodge. The Imperial Sandgrouse Shoot here each Christmas was said to be the hottest ticket in the Indian social calendar of its day.

The demise of the Raj and the loss of all maharajahs’ royal status following Independence resulted in this getaway resort, the Gajner Palace, becoming a heritage hotel in 1976. My guess is that, after they’d restored the place, they dismissed the maintenance men!

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Yes, there’s still a glimpse of the elegance of days gone by at the Gajner Palace Hotel. Service, from smartly-uniformed staff, is deferential, efficient and discrete. Parched green and brown lawns and hedges are neatly trimmed, pathways are swept by ladies with swishing brooms, a rangoli (a traditional floor decoration) in the courtyard beside reception is refreshed with new flower petals each morning. An elaborate restaurant, once the maharajah’s ballroom, could hold hundreds for a banquet and is perfect for silver-service dining. Part of the station waiting room (did I forget to mention that this place had its own railway line to Bikaner once upon a time?), now dominated by huge Banyan trees, has become a suite of rooms.

My own historic suite in the Dungar Niwas wing was where British dignitaries stayed during their leisure trips. This high-ceilinged room, larger than all the bedrooms in my house back in England put together, was equipped with a double bed, a sitting area with a dining table and chairs and a view through mosquito-screens to the lake, and niceties like a flat-screen television and WiFi that didn’t work.

The pale-blue, patterned wallpaper, beginning to show its age, had begun to peel in places. The room was clean and decidely cool. Indeed, a roaring coal fire in its empty, beautifully-tiled fireplace with plastic flowers on the mantelpiece would have struggled to warm this vast space; the single oil-filled electric radiator provided instead was sufficient only to dry a pair of freshly-washed socks.

The huge, white-tiled, marble-floored bathroom with its stained roll-top bath, a hand-basin only slightly smaller and a toilet pan built for the heaviest backside was utilitarian Victoriana and supplied with enough toiletries to wash an entire rugby-football team. Towels slid easily to the floor when placed on a rail that was almost attached to the wall.

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My research suggested that a neighbouring wildlife sanctuary was worthy of a visit. At the time of booking my room, I’d enquired whether the hotel could organise this and, if so, how much it would cost. Nine emails and as many weeks passed before I received a reply that they could, at a cost of 1,000 Rupees (about £10). When I went to book it at reception, it turned out to cost 3,000 Rupees – for an hour!

Instead, I walked beside the lake and around some of the estate, discovering ample birds and wildlife, free of charge

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Perhaps I’d missed some dire warnings about this faded monument. Others clearly hadn’t as there were more staff than the tiny handful of British and German guests in residence. Perhaps it was more to do with price – at over 12,000 Rupees (£120) a night for bed and breakfast this would be expensive almost anywhere, but by Indian standards it’s outrageously bad value for money.

The hotel’s publicity encourages visitors to ‘Discover Rajasthan’s best-kept secret’. I actually think it’s best kept a secret!

Posted by Keep Smiling 08:00 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan gajner Comments (2)

The eighth Wonder of the World perhaps?

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Khichan - 28 to 29 January 2016

sunny 30 °C

For the price of a night at my last stop, I could have stayed for four or five nights at my next one. And, oh, how I wish I had!

While I had an inkling of what I would find there, I was unprepared to be totally and utterly blown away by what must surely be one of the most spectacular sights anywhere in India.

A scary 2½ hour drive from Gajner, mostly on a fast, two-lane highway, brought me to the Kurja Resort in an arid desert location two miles (3.5kms) outside the town of Phalodi. I could happily have spent several days here, knowing what was omnipresent just a five-minute drive away.

Within half an hour of checking-in, I was doing that drive! I couldn’t wait to see if what I’d heard was true.

Khichan, a dusty village of small, mostly single-storey square, flat-roofed buildings, is home to some 1200 families totalling around 7000 people. Many are of the Marwari Jain faith, a religion that believes animals and plants, as well as human beings, contain living souls and that they should be treated equally, with respect and compassion.

About 50 years ago, one Ratan Lal Maloo, a Jain native of Khichan who had been working away from home, returned to the village and, without work, was given the job of putting down grain to feed pigeons and occasional peacocks. A dozen Demoiselle Cranes (called kurja in Rajasthani), previously seen visiting neighbouring farmland, soon arrived too. Later, they were joined by a few more and, in subsequent winters, the number of visiting cranes swelled to sizeable flocks. A charitable body was set up by a concerned villager, a man named Ganga Ram, to fund the feeding supported by donations from local and international visitors. Because local dogs had started hunting them, the village council was asked to provide land on the outskirts of the village for the building of a chugga ghar, a ‘bird-feeding home’ protected by a wall and with a place to store grain. Several Jain traders supported the initiative with supplies of grain.

By the turn of the century, visiting cranes were there in their thousands, numbers beginning slowly as early as August each year, peaking during the winter months, and declining as late as March of the following year. Today, although no-one knows the precise numbers, an estimated 20,000 or more cranes come to Khichan each year.

Demoiselle Canes are the smallest of the world’s crane species, weighing about 4 to 7lbs (2 to 3 kg), standing 3ft (90 cm) tall, and with a wing span of 5 to 6 feet (155 –180 cm). They are the second most abundant cranes, breeding in the Eurasian and Mongolian plains and steppes. Their migration to warmer winter climes is long and arduous, crossing high terrain and the Himalayas they often fly at heights of between 16,000 and 26,000 ft (around 5000 to 8000m).

Their plain bluish-grey plumage also makes them one of the prettiest of the crane family and to see them in such vast numbers is a fabulous sight.

This first afternoon, I found them resting beside one of several ponds amid sand dunes to the north of the village. Apart from a couple of local children, I was the only human being there. Apart from a family of Pintail ducks and a lone Red-wattled Lapwing, the only birds were Demoiselle Cranes.

I was astounded by the sheer volume of them, flying overhead and standing just feet away from me. Sudden movement sent them marching away in unison or fleetingly rising into the air. I sat and watched them fascinated for over an hour, before returning to my room at the resort named after these fantastic birds.

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Next morning at dawn, I was back – this time joining two families, one Indian and one South African, on the roof of someone’s house opposite the chugga garh. They were all just as stunned to witness the spectacle unfolding before us.

As the sun’s orange glow filled the sky, vast flocks of birds flew in from their night-time roosts, wave after wave whirling high above, then dropping ever lower towards us. Huge flocks of pigeons joined them, these braver birds the first to descend in their hundreds to the feeding ground in the compound below us.

At first, the cranes were reluctant to land, gliding in lines over our heads, then sailing away before repeating the circuit time after time.

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Eventually, one courageous crane descended and started to feed on the seed that had been laid down in lines on the ground. Judging the coast clear, more rapidly joined it. Then came more and more and more, gliding down in small groups amid much squawking and flapping until the entire compound was a sea of feathers, grey, white and black. All the time, more waves of these gracious birds flew overhead, some landing on higher ground to the side of the feeding areas to await their turn.

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The birds below us were, at one moment, a sea of rounded feathers, heads down, feeding voraciously. Next, startled by something unseen, they were heads up, marching forward like a well-trained grey army.

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Finally, satiated, they rose as if on a signal, flying off into the clear blue sky, to be replaced by the next wave that had been waiting so patiently and noisily nearby. These, in turn, were replaced by those on wing. Still more flew in from the sands beyond, acrobatically filling the sky above our heads then swooping down to fill spaces vacated by the previous wave.

This would continue for several hours until all the birds had taken their fill and retreated to the ponds outside the village to bathe and drink. I was in need of the same, so returned to my hotel for a shower and breakfast before continuing my journey westward to Jaisalmer.

My too-brief visit to Khichan was an amazing experience. I'd go so far as to say that it’s one that ranks close to my first sight of that most enigmatic monument, the Taj Mahal.

*****

Accommodation:
Kurja Resort, Bird View Point, Railway Station Road, Khichan, Phalodi, Jodhpur Tel:+91 9414561717 email: kurjaresort@gmail.com (sometimes slow to respond) Can be booked through Booking.com.

The ‘resort’, made up of a mix of accommodation in brick-built blocks and, later in the year, fully-equipped tents on a permanent base, is set in substantial grounds of lawns fringed by flowering hibiscus shrubs. There’s a pleasant restaurant and, at night, a convivial fire-pit provides a setting for pre-dinner drinks and chats.

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It’s been open for less than a year and they have yet to get their priorities sorted. The promised mini-bar in the room was empty, for example, the bathrobe and slippers missing, and the ‘views’ obscured by dark-green anti-mosquito netting at the windows. However, these deficiencies were more than compensated for by the size of the room, the good lighting, the sitting area, ample wardrobe space and efficient bathroom.

I booked through Booking.com, but could have done it direct, possibly at a slightly higher rate, through their own website (www.kurjaresort.com/). The description of facilities on Booking.com is inaccurate - bathrobes, slippers, etc., are not provided, as mentioned above, and WiFi is not available in the rooms. Nonetheless, it's still a friendly, efficient and very comfortable place to stay. Food is good and reasonably priced too.

Cost: Double cottage-style room for single occupancy cost Rs. 3240 (around £33) per night for bed and breakfast. An ample dinner of Butter Chicken, Jeera Rice, a roti and a bottle of beer was Rs.560 (£6ish).

I'll be back, just as soon as I can.

Posted by Keep Smiling 08:25 Archived in India Tagged birds rajasthan khichan Comments (1)

Into the Thar

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jaisalmer- 29 to 31 January 2016 Part 1 of 2

sunny 35 °C

It was with considerable reluctance that I left behind the Demoiselle Cranes and drove another couple of hours west into the Thar Desert.

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The ancient 'Golden City' of Jaisalmer is about as far west as you can go in India - unless you're in the country's armed forces. This dry and dusty part of Rajasthan lies close to the border with Pakistan to the west & south-west. Main roads just half-an-hour from the city centre are reserved for military use and there's a significant air force station on the outskirts. Jet engines occasionally roar loudly across the town, after-burners like bright flames on take-off suddenly disappearing as fighter aircraft climb into inky night-time skies.

Yet it's a peaceful enough place, dominated by a massive sandcastle of a 12th-century fort and, although it’s a bit out on a limb some 360 miles (575kms) from the State capital of Jaipur, it continues to be one of Rajasthan's most popular tourist destinations.

I’d arrived shortly after midday. I could see the fort from my bedroom window, so decided to venture out to find some lunch there.

'It's a 15-minute walk', they said.

'Turn left and then go straight', they said.

The only problem was there were no straight roads!

The narrow walkways between tall buildings with colourful, over-stocked shops at street level also prevented any view of the fort, which I thought must be somewhere up on the hill above me. One narrow alleyway and one bazaar looked very much like another and I must have turned right when I should have turned left, or turned left when I should have turned right!

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Three hours later, I returned to the hotel, having asked the way a dozen times and been given a lift on the back of a motorbike for part of the way by someone going in that general direction. I never did find the fort that day!

I did, however, find places that weren’t on the tourist trail. I chatted to people who’d almost certainly never had a European enquiring about what their little shop contained. A couple of old gents in a courtyard behind an intriguing green door beckoned me in and we spent an enjoyable few minutes exchanging sign language. I even had a bite to eat outside a hole-in-wall restaurant with locals curious to know why I was with them and not up in the fort with all the tourists!

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I enjoyed getting lost; it brought a new perspective to the realities of life in a big, remote city and it provided some great photo opportunities. I must do it again soon!

The next morning I did find my way to that citadel in the sky, although somewhat by accident and it definitely took much longer than the promised 15 minutes to get there. It took even longer to get back again!

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The city was founded in 1156 - as you might guess, by a man named Jaisal. He was the leader of the Bhati Rajput clan, who apparently claim a lineage back to Lord Krishna and who ruled here until India’s independence in 1947. In early times, the Bhatis lived by looting, but 500 years on, as it found itself on the camel-train ‘Silk Route' between Central Asia and India, it became a prosperous trading post. The British Raj put paid to that with the introduction of railways, an increase in sea trade through Mumbai to the south and finally with Partition in 1947 cutting trade routes with Pakistan. In subsequent years, disputes between India and Pakistan gave the city a new strategic military importance and opening of the Indira Ghandi Canal to the north revitalised the desert environment.

Inevitably though, tourism has brought the greatest wealth and even greater problems. The fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a living one with more than a quarter of the city’s population living inside it. It was built on shaky foundations and water seepage, inadequate drains and sewers, an ever-growing population and increasing visitor numbers have all led to parts of it crumbling and even collapsing. Millions have been spent trying to conserve it but, hey, this is India. A lack of co ordination among government departments presents on-going difficulties in restoration and, importantly, maintenance; I guess it will for many years to come.

The fort’s tall, rounded bastions and sandstone walls, a lion-like colour during the day, turn a deep honey-gold as the bright sun drops below the horizon. The streets leading up to it are - as I discovered - a maze of homes with a fascinating array of doors and markets selling all manner of everyday things. Inside the fort, through four huge gates, is another honeycomb of lanes lined with shops, all seemingly similar. There are some interesting temples too and cafés and small restaurants galore.

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Beside the walls, there are busy market stalls and, inside, a host of shops with stuff for tourists: blouses and pantaloons in fancy patterns that locals would never even consider wearing, fabric and leather bags, mirrored umbrellas and beautiful bright embroideries. It's an ideal place for camel safari touts to give backpackers some hard-sell too. As this is very much an inhabited fort, the residents also shop here, albeit at less than tourist prices.

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Away from the well-trodden tourist paths, cows and pigs wander at will, dirty water runs in open channels beside the foot-way, old men sit outside in the sun reading yesterday’s news, and kids play a game of marbles until, noticing a rare camera-toting tourist (me!), they leap to their feet demanding a photo.

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Bored with all the commercialisation, however, I climbed up onto the ramparts and walked around just inside the walls, enjoying the solitude and views.

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Later, after leaving the fort, I got lost again trying to find my way back down to the hotel. Should I have turned right or left, straight on, back up then right…? Eventually, when I’d given up all hope of recognising my whereabouts, I flagged down a passing auto-rickshaw and invested 40 Rupees (40p) for the last leg of the journey back!

Gadisar Lake

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I did a deal with the auto-rickshaw driver to take me that afternoon to Gadisar Lake, wait there an hour, then bring me back - all for the princely sum of 200 Rupees (£2). It was a bit farther than I’d imagined from the map and the road was potholed, littered with unannounced speed humps and busy with local traffic. Perhaps I should have booked a taxi cab!

However, once there, I found a pleasant man-made lake (usually referred to here as a ‘tank’) dating back to the 14th century. Formerly the main source of drinking water for the city, it’s filled only by rainwater and sometimes dries out if the monsoon is poor. Around the edge and on small islands are some old temples but its main function seems to be a place of recreation for the local populace, who enjoy pedalo rides on the water and feeding huge catfish that gather in anticipation of a meal of stale chapatis.

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My final afternoon was spent in the company of the hotel’s owner, using his Jeep and driver to visit ‘untouristy’ parts of the surrounding desert. Turn to Part 2 'Farther Into The Thar' to read all about it.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:52 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan jaisalmer thar_desert Comments (2)

Farther into The Thar

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jaisalmer- 29 to 31 January 2016 Part 2 of 2

sunny 35 °C

In just a few days, I'd already seen a lot of what Jaisalmer had to offer. Now I wanted to see what was out there, in the sands of the Thar.

I have to mention that the Thar Desert is not really the ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ kind, although many visitors are persuaded to emulate his adventures by taking an overnight (and overpriced) excursion to popular sand dunes at Sam. This is really semi-desert with low-growing scrub and only occasional sand dunes. Indeed, the Thar as a whole is one of the most heavily-populated desert areas in the world. Agriculture and animal husbandry are the main occupations of its inhabitants, with fields of millet, maize and beans cultivated and harvested during monsoon periods (known as kharif crops) and small herds of goats, sheep and camels being familiar sights.

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We drove for what seemed like an eternity on a single-track road, with sand dotted with thorn scrub, clumps of grass and stands of succulent plants stretching into the distance on either side. Through the open back of the Jeep, I could see sand swirling behind us, some entering my seating area and prompting me to firmly cover my cameras before it entered their delicate mechanisms.

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Our first stop was near the village of Jaseri, at a waterhole devoid of human life except for a couple of women collecting dry sticks for their cooking fires. Beside the water grew shrubby trees with lethal thorns the size of a man’s fingers and tiny plants bearing bright purple and yellow flowers with similar protective thorns (Solanum virginianum for the botanists among you). From out of nowhere, while trying to photograph the lake, I was surrounded by a flock of fluffy white sheep and hairy black goats before they all headed for the water bleating loudly - goats with short tails up, sheep with long tails hanging down.

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We continued to Kuldhara, one of 84 similar abandoned villages, but didn’t enter as this well-known spot now demands a fee from visitors. Instead, we drove on to Khaba, where there was a small fort overlooking another of these abandoned villages.

The story goes that these 13th century villages prospered because of their Brahmin communities’ agricultural and business skills. Then, around 1825, an evil ruler of a neighbouring kingdom demanded to marry the young daughter of one of these villages' chiefs. He stipulated a deadline for the marriage, after which he would forcibly enter the village and take away the girl. The chiefs of all the surrounding villages met to discuss the threat and, for the pride and honour of their caste, decided that the entire population would secretly leave the villages during the night. No-one is sure how they did it, nor where they went. They simply vanished. As they left, they put curses on the villages which would bring death to anyone who tried to inhabit the land. This is thought to be why so much of the ancient villages remains - although houses have tumbled down, they haven’t been stripped for materials. Weird and a bit spooky!

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Just down the road, we came upon a shop - yes, a shop! There wasn’t anything else there. Inside, my driver, the friendly hotel manager, bought a pack of cigarettes. An old man sitting outside, who’d clearly had a drink or three, then entertained us briefly with a tune on a pungi, a familiar type of wind instrument made from a dried gourd and used to charm snakes. I didn’t find the sound particularly charming - but his puffing and panting face made an interesting photo.

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Our journey continued into the Desert National Park, parts of which have been fenced to preserve the tall yellowing grasses that allow the endangered Great Indian Bustard to survive here in quite good numbers (alas, I wasn’t lucky enough to sight one on this occasion - something I'll try to correct on my next visit in a year's time). Many other birds are found here though, particularly raptors like eagles, harriers, vultures, buzzards and kestrels. We saw a few, but the hotel manager was not ornithologically inclined and we tended to whizz past them too fast for me to clearly identify them or to digitally capture their existence!

Next, we popped into a village occupied by people who’d once been nomadic but who had been persuaded by the government to take up permanent residence in the desert and to educate their children in the ways of the modern world. Tourists don’t come to this particular village. My hotel manager had an uncle who lived nearby and he was known to its chief, however. So, without formality, we spent an enjoyable half-hour meeting several families and dozens of very inquisitive children. I was told that these young boys and girls had spent the morning at school - but there was no school building anywhere in sight. It transpired that they'd walked several miles each way to a government-run one in a larger village, as they did every weekday. The standard of education in these schools wasn't great, just basic number and reading/writing skills in Hindi, but it would give these poor families opportunities that they never had as wandering goat-herders. This was one of the most memorable experiences of my entire holiday. I do enjoy meeting 'real' people.

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Then it was off across the sand, pausing briefly to photograph a Variable Wheatear and a young Egyptian Vulture that happened to pose long enough for me to persuade our driver to stop.

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Finally - and I couldn’t come to a desert without doing so - I mounted a camel (if you’ll excuse the expression) for a two-hour saunter across the shifting sands.

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Now, it has to be said that a camel wouldn’t be my first choice of transport in a crisis. It’s a cantankerous beast, complaining vociferously from the moment it’s made to kneel for one to climb onto its saddle. It attracts flies. It lollops rather than walks. It spits and it farts.

However, its big flat feet provide a simple way to negotiate deep sand and a high seating position from which to admire the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately, without stirrups, one has to do the splits in order to sit on the saddle. Sitting on the seat in front of the hump results in a pain in the thighs and groins. Sitting on the seat behind the hump results (for men, at least) in a pain elsewhere.

Please promise you won’t laugh at this photo of me pretending to smile at the end of my uncomfortable ride across the arid plains and wind-swept dunes. I was sitting in the seat behind the hump!

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Accommodation:
Hotel The Silk Route, Patwa Haveli Road, Kalakar (Artists) Colony, Jaisalmer Te: +91 9414478125 or +91 2992 251213 email: mail@hotelthesilkroute.com Web: www.hotelthesilkroute.com
Booked through Booking.com - but can be easily (and preferably) booked direct.

This modern hotel, less than a year old, has been constructed amid a small colony of family houses a 20-minute interesting walk from the Fort (unless you get hopelessly lost on the way there, as I did!). Arriving here is something of a shock - from the road, one has to cross an unpleasant damp area littered with rubbish, then walk up a steep path with gullies for waste water before reaching an even steeper flight of steps up to the hotel reception. In fairness, work is being done to tidy up the area as part of a community improvement project. (Written in 2016. In late-2018, work had started to construct a new entrance to the rear of the building, which will result in better and more attractive access.)

Once inside, the rooms are spacious, clean, modern and well-equipped. Great use has been made of local patchwork embroidery for bedspreads and for cushion covers on the window seat. The bed was comfortable and the wet-room-style bathroom was excellent, with a hand-basin, Western toilet and a shower designed to avoid flooding the whole room.

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There’s a great rooftop terrace with views towards the Fort. Here, there’s seating and tables for enjoying breakfast and reasonably priced light meals that are cooked to order in an adjoining kitchen. WiFi is available in the room, although it's better on the rooftop.

The young staff, under manager Guman, were friendly, hard working and always eager to provide the best service possible. A special mention here for Jaseem, the ever-smiling, floor-sweeping, bathroom-cleaning youngster seen in this picture.

The knowledgeable and respected owner, Dileep Singh Pau, acted as my guide with his own jeep for my safari into the desert.

Cost: Double for single occupancy Rs.1200 (£12ish) per night for bed and breakfast. Great value.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:58 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan jaisalmer Comments (3)

Trains and the miracles of Ajmer

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Ajmer - 1 to 3 February 2016

sunny 30 °C

Television programmes in the UK would like us to believe that all Indian trains are like Mumbai’s peak-hour ‘Super Dense Crush Load’ - thousands of human sardines crammed into a nine-carriage train, fifteen people to a square metre, hanging out of doors and riding on the roof!

Fortunately, outside of that vast over-populated metropolis, the reality is usually quite different. In fact, I’ve always found Indian Railways reasonably comfortable, efficient and tremendous value for money.

Trains have eight classes - not all of them on every train, but I’d hesitate to recommend anything other than 2A or 1A Classes, unless you’re a backpacker prepared to take the very rough with the never smooth. Look at The Man in Seat 61’s website for a complete run-down.

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The outside of the windows being cleaned with sheets of newspaper. Alas, the insides didn't receive similar attention!
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My Class 1A sleeper compartment - four berths all to myself.

On this trip, my train experiences were mostly very good. You’ll have read about my journey from Mount Abu to Bikaner in my ‘Rats, vultures and camels' blog. Okay, on that occasion, the daylight train ran late but, in its defence, Abu Road was its 35th stop and its destination, Bikaner, was a further eight stops and 545kms (325 miles) away. My 2A (second-class, air-conditioned) fare for that journey, including all fees and taxes and after Senior Citizen’s discount (a benefit since discontinued by Indian Railways for foreigners) was a paltry 830 Rupees (£8.50). It would surely take a miracle at that rate for Indian Railways, one of the world's largest railway networks, to make a profit from its passenger services (it actually made a loss of 300bn Rupees - more than £3 Billion - in 2014!). It has no cash to improve the rolling stock and huge diesel or electric locomotives, which haul umpteen solidly built and solidly sprung, worn and dusty carriages that always look and feel older than their years.

I’ve been asked about toilets on the trains - we Westerners can be a bit fussy about such things! Well, there’s usually a choice of footprint- and Western-style loos on long-distance trains. They’re cleaned at the start of the train’s journey - but they may have been repeatedly used for many hours by the time you board, of course. Toilet paper's usually conspicuous by its absence, so remember to bring your own (unless, that is, you prefer the Indian left hand and water system). Except on some updated trains with bio-toilets (a collecting tank, like on an aircraft), you can usually see tracks and sleepers passing beneath the pan’s waste outlet before it’s unceremoniously dumped onto the tracks! Too much information? Let’s move on…

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Pull the chain without good reason and you could face a fine of £10 - or a year in jail.

This time, my ride from Jaisalmer to Ajmer was through the night and scheduled to take 11¼ hours. The train left a couple of minutes late but miraculously took only 10¾ hours to cover the 535kms (320 miles) eastwards. Although that only equates to an average 30mph, this was an express train. It made a dozen two-minute stops along the way and in 1A Class (first class, air-conditioned sleeping compartment), it cost me 1,324 Rupees (£13.25). Again, I was allocated a compartment entirely to myself and I slept quite well.

My arrival at the chaotic city of Ajmer was also chaotic. The area outside the station was a seething mass of taxis and touts, all vying for my business. The homestay (B&B) I’d booked in advance had arranged a taxi to meet me and a quick telephone call provided the driver’s mobile phone and car registration numbers. We were soon united and on our way to the dentist. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that I was staying at Sharda’s Homestay - above one of the city's busiest and best-known dental surgeries. From the balcony of my room I had a good view of nearby Bajranggarh Circle, the town's everyday life and a glittery little temple with pre-dawn bells clanging loud enough to wake the dead.

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Ana Sagar

It was only a short walk to the city's tranquil lake of Ana Sagar. Most tourists tend to stay in the town of Pushkar, 13 kms away, and visit Ajmer on a day-trip (albeit wrongly in my opinion) so it’s likely that most never come to the lake. That's a pity because, despite the usual plastic bags and bottles found in most public places in India, it somehow makes for an interesting and tranquil diversion.

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Ana Sagar is an immense man-made lake constructed in the 12th century on the orders of one Anaji Chauhan, the king of the day (hence the name - Ana from Anaji, without the 'ji' which is a term of respect, plus Sagar, the word for lake). In the 17th century, Shah Jahan added pavilions and Jehangir, the eldest surviving son of Mughal Emperor Akbar, provided the adjoining Daulat Bagh gardens. The 21st-century inhabitants of Ajmer have provided the ugly detritus that litters and spoils the appearance of the historic gardens and lake!

Nonetheless, the area's widely used for leisure purposes - walking and jogging, boating, feeding the fish and admiring flocks of birds that are still abundant on and around its grubby waters. I spent several pleasurable hours here in the afternoon and the following morning, just watching the world go by, sitting, observing and photographing the changing scene.

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Dargah of Moin-Ud-Din Chisti

Legend has it that, when the Sufi Muslim saint Khwaja Moin-Ud-Din Chisti arrived in Ajmer, he and his followers weren’t permitted to use water from Ana Sagar. Chisti asked for just a little of it to be put into his mashkiza (a skin bag for carrying water). When the mashkiza was being filled, the entire lake miraculously disappeared into it. The people begged him to return the water, which he gracefully did, as if by magic - and immediately gained a multitude of followers!

He subsequently devoted his life to serving the poor, praying to Allah for their well-being and, it's said, performing many miracles. On his death in 1236, this revered man was provided by the Mughals with a dargah, a shrine built over his grave. It has since become Rajasthan's most important site in terms of Islamic history and heritage. Millions of pilgrims flock to the dargah every year and it’s believed that wishes made here from a pure heart will all be fulfilled. Holy strings attached to railings within the complex are thanks or requests for the saint’s spirit to intercede in matters of illness, business or personal problems.

I have every respect for people’s beliefs and I enjoyed visiting this holy place, but I have to admit that I found Chisti's dargah and its surrounding bazaars to be grossly over commercialised - an Islamic version perhaps of the ugly souvenir shops and candle-selling swindles that despoil the Catholic shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France.

To reach the dargah involves walking in a crowded, narrow street full of shops selling floral offerings, stuffed toy horses (I’m not sure of their significance), sweetmeats, head coverings, clothes and all manner of religious mementoes. Beggars dressed in dirty, tattered clothing accentuating missing limbs and deformities are here in greater numbers than I’ve ever seen elsewhere in India.

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Bags have to be left in a cloakroom away from the dargah. Finding it is a miracle in itself: facing the dargah's entrance, go left, then first right, straight on, bear right into an unsigned dark corridor, turn left down a steep, narrow flight of stone steps to a room piled high with suitcases and bags on shelves. Present some form of identity and pay the man 30 Rupees (less if your bag doesn’t contain a camera - which, incidentally, isn’t allowed inside the dargah). Take your receipt, put the bag in a locker, take out the key and put it in your pocket with the receipt which you’ll need to give back when you return! Oh, and put your shoes in the locker too - if you leave them with hundreds of others outside the dargah, it'll take another miracle to locate them when you return.

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Inside, the architecture and the multitude of people performing their devotions are all well worth seeing and experiencing. In the saint’s domed tomb with its silver surroundings you’re likely to be forcibly grabbed, as I was, by one of the priests. He'll cover your head in a cloth and chant unintelligible words over you before demanding a substantial donation, resulting in disapproving disappointment on his face when you offer only a small denomination note.

Photography isn’t permitted anywhere inside the dargah but, taking a lead from the faithful, I too used my mobile phone to take a few snaps. My phone wasn’t one of those fancy ‘smart’ things that even the poorest Indian agricultural worker or erratic car driver seems to use all the time, so you’ll have to excuse the indifferent quality of those photos!

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The ‘Golden Temple’ (Soniji Ki Nasiyan Mandir)

To reach the dargah I had to take an auto-rickshaw. However, Ajmer’s also an important centre for the Jain religion and its most impressive monument, the 19th-century ‘Golden Temple’ (more correctly the Soniji Ki Nasiyan Mandir), was a mere ten-minute stroll from my homestay.

The Jain temples at Ranakpur and Mount Abu are glorious wedding-cake structures of glistening white marble with multitudes of intricately carved columns, alien-faced idols and saffron-robed priests wearing face-masks to prevent inhaling and destroying even the tiniest of creatures. The double-storey temple hall of the Soniji Ki Nasiyan Mandir wasn't remotely like this, as you will now learn...

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Don't chew beatles?! I think this might refer to the disgusting habit of chewing paan (a betel leaf and areca nut stimulant), the red paste of which is later spat out onto the floor!

According to Jain philosophy, the universe has no beginning or end, the earth is a flat, round dish and it’s stationary. On this ‘earth’ are numerous bangle-like continents with oceans surrounding them. I mention this because it might help you to understand the even more complicated story told by this unique temple’s contents.

Here, in a predominantly red-sandstone building, I found an astonishing three-dimensional model made up of 13 of the Jain earth's continents and oceans; in the middle was a golden Mount Sumeru around which, Jain astronomy states, constellations move in eternity.

This amazing structure contained scenes based on the golden city of Ayodha, birthplace of Lord Rishabhdev. Six months before Rishabhdev’s conception, by some miracle of foresight, this celestial land was laid out under orders of Indra, ‘King of the Gods’ and ’God of the Heavens’. When the Lord was born, Indra and numerous celestial beings came in procession with heavenly elephants, chariots and horses, circling three times around the city. Indra put the baby on a many-trunked white elephant and journeyed to holy Mount Sumeru.

Still with me?

At Mount Sumeru, a great ceremony was held. Above, celestials rode in airships and played musical instruments to celebrate the birth. Water was fetched from the ‘fifth ocean’ (called Ksheer Samudra - if you really need to know!) to give the baby a holy bath.

The final part of the story being played out in this hall is a dance show organised by Indra in Lord Rishabhdev’s royal court. A celestial dancer died while performing and was discretely replaced by another. The Lord noticed the difference, however, and this led him to think about the transient nature of the world - which he immediately decided to renounce! His decision was applauded by all concerned and he was taken in a celestial palanquin to Prayag (modern-day Allahabad), where he left behind all worldly things and became an ascetic. End of story. Phew!

All this was portrayed in a vast array of golden sculptures that filled the entire temple hall measuring over 24 metres by 12 metres (around 80 feet x 40 feet). It was an incredible sight. Unfortunately, you have to view it through glass windows - for security reasons I guess. There’s not a piece of white marble in this hall, just lots and lots of gold!

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Behind the hall is a small temple complete with marble tower and statues of elephants, reached through a huge red-sandstone gateway. There was no sound, no priests, no worshippers, just a couple of ladies moving the dust from one place to another with their swishing brooms. By some quirk of fate (or was it another miracle perhaps?), I was the only visitor in the entire temple complex.

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*

There were still a few sights left in Ajmer but, as always, I have to leave something for next time! Anyway, my schedule required me to move on to the even more holy town of Pushkar, just 20 minutes away over Nag Pahar, the Snake Mountain.

*

Accommodation:
Sharda's Homestay, Sharda Bhawan, Ashok Marg, Near Bajranggarh Circle, Ajmer Tel: +91 9352002373 email: info@shardashomestay.com http://shardashomestay.com/ Proprietor: Dr Nidhi Sharda. Booked through Booking.com but can be booked direct at similar rates.

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My spacious, first-floor, air-conditioned 'Deck Room' with a separate entrance, a balcony and a well-equipped bathroom, together with a more than ample breakfast in the nearby dining room each morning, was every bit as good as a first-class hotel, but more personal and less expensive.

Friendly, helpful attention from Dr Nidhi Sharda, the vivacious dentist herself, was a bonus. She gave me advice on what to see, where to find it and even arranged delivery of an inexpensive but tasty Domino’s pizza to my room on the first evening! (I'd fancied a non-spicy treat after more than two weeks of curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The pizza arrived with seven sachets of dried chilli flakes!)

This excellent B&B, its good location and its very caring owner, together with its cost of around 3200 Rupees plus 8.4% tax per night for the double room, including breakfast, means it was really great value.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:36 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan ajmer Comments (1)

Puzzling Pushkar

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Pushkar - 3 to 6 February 2016

sunny 30 °C

I knew before I went that four nights in Pushkar would be too many, so I reduced my hotel reservation to three nights.

I now know that even three nights in Pushkar was too many! This holy town simply wasn’t my cup of tea.

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It’s difficult to put a finger on quite why I didn’t thoroughly enjoy my time here though. After all, I’d read somewhere that: ‘It isn’t difficult to fall in love with Pushkar’s tranquillity, its spiritual ambiance and its winding lanes’.

Tranquillity?

Well, maybe. I’d planned to spend a few days winding down at the end of my hectic tour of western Rajasthan, but boredom must have set in after my first sortie into the town. It’s not a very big place, you see - its resident population is only around 22,000 and it’s really just a lake surrounded by ghats, temples large and small, hole-in-the-wall places geared to serving tourists, and a load of shops all selling the same sort of low quality hippy tie-dye, hippy bags, hippy jewellery, hippy this, hippy that…

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Don’t get me wrong - I’m of an age that clearly remembers the days of Flower Power, flared trousers, Peace… but to see so many, young and old, who still cling to the 60s and 70s is frankly weird. I appeared to be one of very few Westerners without long hair tied up in a bun, a ponytail or topknot, not wearing baggy floral trousers or sporting a few months’ facial hair. Oh, and I wasn’t smoking spliffs or playing a guitar (badly) either.

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Yes, I guess I did have a tranquil time though - lunching on the terrace of an hotel overlooking the lake, watching the sun go down from the Sunset Café, and sitting up on the roof of my hotel sipping lemon tea, listening to music on my iPod and writing notes for my blogs. The views from there were often interesting - children in the house next door sitting cross-legged doing their school homework, a pair of little brown birds catching flies on a neighbouring rooftop, a family in another house keeping at bay a troop of langur monkeys intent on stealing their dinner, and a well-dressed horse on its way to carry a bridegroom.

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There was also a pleasant view towards the cone-shaped hills, each topped with a tiny temple. I’d planned to walk up one of these hills to the Savitri Temple, the second most important temple in Pushkar. That was, until they told me I’d have to climb 650 steps to reach it and that the best time to do so was at sunrise. Get up at 5.30a.m.? Climb loads of steps? Just for a distant view of Pushkar through the mist? No thanks - I’ll wait until they finish building the cable-car!

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Spiritual ambiance?

Yes, possibly that too. At the heart of the town is a lake that legend associates with Brahma, creator of the Hindu world, designer of all humans, animals, planets and stars. ‘Pushkar’ translates as ‘lotus flower’, upon which Brahma is usually shown seated. One of the few temples anywhere in the world devoted solely to this deity has been here since the 14th century and it’s one of the reasons why all devout Hindus should visit Pushkar at least once in their lifetime.

Around the lake are flights of high stone and concrete steps, from which the faithful take a dip in its sacred waters. Known as ‘bathing ghats’, I'm told that there are enough for one every week of the year. I circumnavigated the lake, for the most part using the ghats as my footpath. It was interesting just to sit in a shaded place observing the rituals, listening to occasional drums and songs of devotion, and chatting with curious passers-by.

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Walking, however, wasn’t so pleasant. One of the ‘musts’ in this holy place is to remove shoes at least 10 metres from the water. The steps are often broken and the going’s quite rough on the soles of feet accustomed to wearing shoes all day every day. Pigeons are ritually fed and are here in vast flocks - what goes in one end must come out the other, if you get my drift - and the occasional cow adds to the underfoot hazards. Fragments of human bones litter the water around the lake’s edge, signs of cremation ashes having being brought to this holy place. Gandhi’s ashes were scattered here at what was previously called Gau (Cow) Ghat, now renamed Gandhi Ghat in his honour.

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Add to all this the nuisance of widespread scams geared to parting foreign visitors from their cash - a ‘pundit’ (a holy man - or someone pretending to be one) offering a flower or a handful of petals, someone chatting about your country, his companion suggesting that, out of respect, you should allow them to give you a blessing by the lake-shore. Trying to politely tell the scammers to get lost doesn’t make for an entirely pleasurable stroll.

The ambiance is more than a little spoilt by a long list of ‘don’ts’. Don’t take photographs of bathers in the lake - I’m not quite sure why; most other religions don’t mind worshippers having their photos taken. Women here tend to bathe fully clothed although, admittedly, men do usually strip down to their boxers or Y-Fronts, so perhaps that’s why.

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Drugs and alcohol are forbidden. So is non-vegetarian food (i.e. no meat or fish of any kind is permitted anywhere within the city limits). My hotel was what’s called ‘pure-veg’ - so no eggs either - and it was a glass of lemon tea rather than a glass of beer that accompanied my evening meals! Smoking is prohibited by law (although not strictly enforced) and, at some cafés there’s a distinct pungent, oily, herb smell in the air that’s definitely not incense. All part of the spiritual ambiance!

Winding lanes?

Yes, there are plenty of them. They wind around the lake, narrow crowded lanes lined with little, over-stocked shops and shopkeepers inviting you in to take a look, no obligation, good prices. Turnings off to left and right lead to one or more of 400 temples, most of which don’t allow foreigners or non-Hindus to enter, to 52 ghats, and to innumerable little hotels, cafés and restaurants.

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I really did try to like Pushkar. I met many people (with long hair tied up in a bun, a ponytail or topknot) who’d fallen in love with its tranquillity, spiritual ambiance and winding lanes.

For me though, it was a holy town geared as much to the religions of commercialism and tourism as it was to Hinduism.

I didn’t dislike it.

I’m glad I saw it.

I didn’t fall in love with it.

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Accommodation:

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Hotel Moon Light, Near Ganga Mandir, Pushkar
Tel: +919829382328 or 8562095048 or 9828462343
Email: pushkarhotelmoonlight@gmail.com Web: ww.pushkarhotelmoonlight.com

If this is one of Trip Advisor's best ‘Speciality Hotels in Pushkar’, I’m rather glad I wasn’t staying at one of those lower down the rankings.

On the plus side were:

• its location within easy reach of the markets, the Brahma Temple, the ghats and the lake (and right beside the fair ground at the time of the Pushkar Camel Fair);
• the rooftop terrace, where there’s good WiFi, plenty of seats and good views - providing you ignore the trash, cows and pigs when you look down;
• the owners - brothers Raju (who always seemed to be around) and Joshi (who appeared only occasionally). They are friendly and hard working.
• the really low prices. I paid 600 Rupees (£6) a night for what’s called (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) a ‘Super Deluxe’ double room. During the Camel Fair multiply the room rate by about six times!

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On the negative side:

• my room wasn't cleaned daily, bedlinen was badly stained (I always carry a silk sleeping bag liner for such eventualities), furnishings were badly worn;
• the bathroom also was not cleaned daily and towels were not changed during my three-night stay. It was windowless and smelled of sewage, the toilet seat was not attached to the pan, no soap or toiletries were provided, and the shower flooded the room;
• the food menu was very limited - fortunately, because the tiny kitchen on the rooftop terrace appeared to be less than hygienic. Note that this is a ‘pure-veg’ establishment - i.e. not just ‘no meat’ but ‘no eggs’ either.
• don’t believe the ‘Facilities’ shown on their website - e.g. the ‘swimming pool’ was non-existent, as were the ‘exclusive spaces for sun-bathing’, and the ‘library’ was a pile of old books in many languages on a table on the rooftop terrace. The photo of the front of the hotel is misleading - move back a few feet and you'd be falling over the rubbish and the pigs and cows eating it!

I’d class this as just about okay for a cheap, short stay.

My stay probably wasn't short enough!

Posted by Keep Smiling 07:24 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan pushkar Comments (3)

Facebook Friends become friends

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Jaipur - 7 to 8 February 2016

sunny 30 °C

Once upon a time a Prince asked a beautiful Princess to marry him.

The Princess replied, ‘No!’

And so the Prince lived happily ever after,

…and rode motorbikes, and went fishing and hunting and played golf,

…and dated women half his age and drank beer and whisky,

…and had tons of money in the bank,

…and even left the toilet seat up and broke wind whenever he wanted.

The end

Well, here I am back in Jaipur, the Pink City, capital of Rajasthan, at the end of an eventful three weeks in my all-time favourite country. This story of the Prince and Princess was printed on a place-mat in the dining room of my hotel here. I just thought I’d share it with you.

Smile and the world smiles with you!

*****

I was last here three weeks ago, having a whale of a time with friends old and new (blogs: ‘Here I go again’ and 'A good time was had by all…'). This time, I arrived by train from Pushkar - or, rather by taxi to Ajmer then a train from there. It's a journey of only a little over two hours, but I'd booked 1A Class (1st Class Air-Conditioned) - an unecessary 'luxury' as it happened because the train was almost empty - as the list attached to the carriage door confirmed. That list also told me that there was due to be only a 60-year-old Indian gent in my compartment going to Ludhiana up in the Punjab, but not until he joined the train at Delhi. So, I had the four-berth compartment all to myself, complete with carefully-packaged sheet and towel in case I fancied a nap and a wash.

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My dear friend Lajpal, his wife and their lovely but shy daughter met me for dinner and, although he was snowed under with work on his officers’ training course, Lajpal insisted that he'd collect me and take me to the airport the next afternoon. It had been terrific to see him and his family once more - they're lovely, so welcoming and truly good friends.

Meantime, I also had a unique opportunity to make even more new friends. Have you ever met up with people who’d previously only been 'Facebook Friends'? It’s an adventure into the unknown and, of course, one has to be a bit cautious about which Friends you choose to meet ’in the flesh’, so to speak.

Regular readers will know that I’m an Indiaphile and that, late in life, I’ve become an aspiring ‘birder’. I’d encountered several online 'Friends' over the past year or two in a Facebook group devoted, somewhat logically, to birding in India. I'd admired their photographs of unfamiliar birds, 'liked' them frequently and often commented favourably on them too. When they heard I was returning to India and, more specifically, coming to Jaipur, some had invited me to meet up.

In the two previous blogs mentioned above, you’ll have read about my thoroughly enjoyable and very rewarding outings with one of them, Manish; it was great to do some real ‘untouristy’ things with someone so friendly and knowledgeable. Two other members of that same group, very keen birders Girdhar and his son Yashoraj, hadn't been able to get away when I was first in Jaipur on this trip. Now, on this my last day, here they were in my hotel lobby, larger than life - or certainly much taller than I’d imagined anyway!

After exchanging words of welcome and memorable gifts, I was whisked away in Girdhar’s sparkling white 4x4, first to a place known only to locals and members of the elite rifle-shooting fraternity.

The OASES (Organized Archery, Shooting and Equestrian Sports) complex in the suburb of Jagatpura had been started under a previous government some eight or nine years ago with the intention of boosting Rajasthan’s heritage sports and nurturing budding talent. Here, in 18 hectares (almost 45 acres) of scrub forest with well-made roads, were an archery complex, the skeleton of an indoor polo arena and accommodation towers, all of them unused since that day and now in a rather sorry state. An abandoned shooting-club facility had been restored and now provided good trap and skeet shotgun ranges, all due to the efforts of Girdhar and an influential committee of which he’s a very important member. While he chaired a meeting, Yashoraj took me off on a birding jaunt around the complex.

Despite sounds of shotguns in the background, we found many interesting little birds, a Redstart, a Plum-headed Parakeet (I'd always wanted to see one of these and the knowledgeable Yashoraj found it for me, as if by magic, just from its ‘tooi-tooi’ call), a Green Bee-eater, a Purple Sunbird, and an Indian Robin quite unlike its European cousin. Surprisingly, we also found a large troop of Grey Langur monkeys that seemed to have made its home in one of the concrete structures. The highlight though was a sighting of three Chital (Spotted Deer) that were known to inhabit the complex but had seldom been witnessed by any of the shooting club’s members, yet alone photographed!

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His meeting over, Girdhar drove us half an hour south-east - stopping off at McDonald’s to pick up a time-saving (vegetarian and chicken) bite to eat on our way - towards Shivdaspura and ponds at Barkheda. Disappointingly, the ponds were largely non-existent, devoid of water. Fortunately, there were still some small areas of water remaining in fields beside nearby Chandlai Lake. There we saw numerous species of waterbirds - including, among many others: Pied Avocets, Northern Pintail, Common Snipe, Pintailed Snipe, Common Teal, Southern Coucal, Northern Shoveler, Common Redshank, and a huge flock of Bar-headed Geese grazing on the short grass that remained.

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Out on the lake’s expanse of water, tantalisingly distant, were flocks of Spoonbills and other waterbirds, but the day had flown by and it was already time to head back to the hotel to prepare for my departure by the evening Jet Airways’ flights to Mumbai and London.

Reluctantly, I bid farewell to my new-found friends, but not without an invitation to return for more, and longer, birding adventures with them next year. I certainly didn’t need any persuasion. They were so kind and had willingly given up their time for this elderly Englishman, previously only a Facebook acquaintance. It felt as if we'd known each other for a very long time. They were really good company and our common enjoyment of the environment, bird-watching and photography made it one of the most rewarding few hours of my entire three-week stay in Rajasthan. I can’t wait until we meet again!

*****

Epilogue

So, that’s Rajasthan (again!) for another year.

Looking back, I’ve made some wonderful new friends, spent quality time with them and with the many close friends I’ve known for years. I’ve visited places I probably wouldn’t have seen as a regular tourist, thanks to all of them - Smriti Van, Jawai, Mount Abu, Chandlai… to name but a few. And, never having travelled around India entirely on my own before, I’ve had adventures that I couldn’t have dreamed of, in places that my previous nine visits to this fascinating country hadn't taken me - Bikaner, Gajner, Khichan, Jaisalmer, Jorbeer, Ajmer, Pushkar... each of them different, every one of them photogenic, all of them exciting even.

What a great country this truly is!


P.S. This is the final entry for my 2016 trip to India - but I'll be back... in 2017, to places new and old in Rajasthan and, in 2018, on a spiritual adventure along and on the holy River Ganges with my elder brother (yes, he's even older than me!).

Posted by Keep Smiling 06:16 Archived in India Tagged india jaipur rajasthan Comments (6)

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