Typed up: at Vijay’s Guest House in Bikaner, on Amritsar-Chandigarh bus Posted from: Internet cafe in Mussoori
We took a sleeper train from Delhi to Bikaner, AC 3rd class (A3 or AC3). There were no closed compartments inside the carriage. Instead on one side there were 2 fixed beds on top of each other against the window, then an aisle. On the other side of an aisle there were floor-to-ceiling dividers with 3 beds attached to each one on both sides. The train provided a thin blanket, 2 sheets, and a super thin pillow for each bed. We had a middle and an upper bunk in a set of 3. The other 4 beds were occupied, but we didn’t really talk to these people.
In the beginning the train was pretty noisy with people talking seemingly without any attempt to keep their voices down. After a while the train quieted down and I got a lot more sleep than I thought I would. The beds were a little too hard to be really comfortable, but evidently soft enough. They were also just a little short for me. Hanging my feet off the end was not an option because people would bump into them. The temperature ranged from a little warm at the beginning, to comfortably cool in the night.
In the morning we woke up to a landscape of sandy desert with trees growing roughly equidistant from each other. The trees and their spacing was very reminiscent of joshua trees, although these were proper trees with bark and leaves. The train took a few hours longer than promised, but eventually we reached the Bikaner station. There we were picked up by somebody from Vijay’s Guest House, where we stayed while we were here.
The guest house was clean with spacious rooms and plenty of nice stone floors. We ate almost all our meals there and they were invariably good. Vijay, the owner, was usually busy but around, and almost made it a point to greet us and talk to us. In the evenings he would like to sit down on the patio and drink vodka/gin/rum (sometimes all mixed together) with us, telling stories and listening to ours. We befriended Petter, a traveler from Sweden, who joined us for most of the activities we did while in Bikaner.
Our first activity was to go on a brief camel safari, organized by Vijay. We were picked up by jeep and drove to a nearby village to start our trip. On the way we passed a dead camel, with 3 dogs eating its head. In story-telling this would be called foreshadowing but I’m just telling you what happened. Petter, Danielle and I each got a camel while our luggage, cook, guide, and camel handlers rode on a camel cart ahead of us.
We rode through mostly sandy terrain which still had plenty of brush and tree growth. We passed through the occasional small village, and also encountered several goat and sheep herds. As everywhere we go, small children yell out to us. The cutest by far were a group who counted from 1 to 10, in English. We saw lots more wildlife than I expected. There were quiet a lot of antelope, and we saw several desert foxes. We also encountered several vultures and a few owls.
During the day we had a 3-hour lunch break, which was a nice change from riding, and also gave our bodies a chance to rest a bit. Riding a camel was pretty fun, adapting to its slow, easy gait. It did however put us in a position that we were not used to. At camp in the evening we all complained a bit of feeling sore and stiff. Just after lunch we stopped at some fruit trees where our camel handlers collected quite a lot of small wild fruits by shaking several trees and picking up what fell down. The fruits were marble sized, with a very large stone inside. Around that the flesh was dry, and tasted mostly like apple.
At our evening campsite a few musicians came (who had regular work as security guards at a nearby mansion) to play traditional Indian music. I was quite intrigued by the harmonium. An instrument that they put on the ground to play. It has a piano keyboard, and bellows that inflate an air sack which is deflated as the notes are played. This allows for continuous sound unlike an accordion, which is what the instrument’s sound resembled a bit. There was another musician who played a traditional drum with great skill, but with total disregard for what was being played by his colleague (except that he would stop drumming when a song wasn’t being played).
We slept well enough in tents on thin pads. In the morning we were all glad that the return trip would be on the camel cart and not on the camel itself. On the way back, my camera suddenly started to take only black pictures, as if the (non-existent) lens cap was permanently attached. Sadly this is a case where real life did a bit of foreshadowing. Later that day things returned to normal though, so I wasn’t too concerned.
Our next adventure was a tour of the area, being driven around by Vijay himself. Our first stop was at a Maharajah’s palace that has since then been turned into a very luxurious hotel. This is where my camera finally bit the bullet and refused to turn on at all. We got a tour of the hotel which was gorgeous, and a brief glimpse at room services prices which were scary. The hotel was made mostly from beautifully carved sandstone. It was situated on a lake which was the permanent home of several birds. There were courtyards with beautiful shade-providing trees. In the restaurant were 2 stuffed panthers.
The hotel was of course very expensive, but only by Indian standards. A double would set you back USD 200, and the scary room service was just USD 3 for a soft drink. Still, this was well out of our budget. We all had tea on a patio next to the lake, where Vijay told us of his journey to Oman and Bahrain. If you ever have the pleasure of meeting him, you must ask about his overseas travels.
We went to a ghat, which is a place where people dump the ashes of their loved ones in the holy lake. In that same lake, other people go bathing to purify themselves. The lake was surrounded by temples and it was interesting to walk around it looking at people and religious symbols. This is also the only place where I’ve ever seen concrete supports for thick tree branches that might otherwise fall down.
Lunchtime was, according to Vijay, the highlight of the day. We had a very nice picnic lunch in a quiet off road spot (we scared away some antelope when we drove up) with (“and this is the best part”) gin and tonics with a slice of lime in it. It was a nice lunch, but us tourists were all grateful that there wasn’t any more alcohol than there was.
After lunch we passed through an area with many brick factories. The soil here was perfect for cutting out bricks, which could be seen drying in great quantities all around. There was the occasional smokestack for the firing ovens, and other than that there were just dusty trails, and all manner of holes dug to make more bricks.
Our final sight of the day, what Danielle and I had been waiting for, was Karni Mata: the rat temple. At this temple, it is believe that the rats are dead storytellers reincarnated. As such they are holy, and they are fed, revered, and prayed to. Petter very graciously lent us his camera so I could take some pictures of this sight which for us was an important one.
My first 2 impressions were that there weren’t that many rats, and that they were a lot smaller than our pet rats. Of course there were a lot more rats than I’ve ever seen anywhere else, but there was no need to wade through rats or anything like that. They mostly kept to the sides and to the feeding stations. Being barefoot, it was more annoying that we occasionally stepped on a hard piece of food than anything else to do with the rats.
Much like the stray dogs we see everywhere, most of the rats seemed pretty healthy but a sizable minority did not. There were quite a few that had cuts at the base of their tails (which is where rats bite each other to establish dominance), and a few with cuts in other places, bad fur, etc. Besides the rats, the temple was a beautiful building in its own right. Especially the main gate was covered in marble carvings of all kinds of animals. This was the first Hindu temple we’ve visited, and it’s refreshing to see the natural world depicted after so much art that was either strictly geometric or defaced by iconoclasts.
We also visited the local camel farm and research center. We saw a herd of 200 or so come in from the grazing grounds, some almost at a run. There were baby camels, which are surprisingly big even at a week old. The museum told us that camels are more cost-effective than oxen, and that a camel-drawn “school cart” can transport 20-25 school children. Finally we sampled camel milk and ice cream, neither of which tasted all that different from products based on regular milk.
By ourselves we visited the local fort, which was definitely worth it even though I was feeling a bit fort-weary at the time. This fort’s interior is still mostly the way it always has been with rugs, furniture, and decorations intact or well preserved. The opulence of some of the rooms have to be seen to be believed. (A select few of you will have that opportunity through a postcard that’s heading your way.) The rooms were painted and decorated floor to ceiling in a variety of styles that somehow blend together into a whole that works. There was also quite an impressive collection of swords and old guns, but very little information on how or why they differed.
It sounds like we did a lot, but I think we spent about half our time relaxing at the guest house. This consisted of reading, watching TV, and using the Internet. I’d also been investigating what was wrong with my camera. Having established that it was 1 month out of warranty, and that there was no local Canon service center, and that servicing by mail was not an option (that’s just not how things are done here; you have to come in person) I decided to take the camera apart myself in the hopes of discovering a loose something or other. I had a nice side adventure finding a suitable screw driver. I ended up buying (I think) the only tiny Phillips head screw driver off a glasses store in town. Predictably, I did not solve the problem and broke a small (possibly irrelevant, I like to think) thing in the process. I am still cameraless, but Hong Kong becons with great deals on electronics.