Return to Rajasthan…

At the ‘Tokyo Palace Hotel’ in Jaisalmer, we received a warm welcome back from the lovely staff. It was a great little hotel, one of our favourite halts on the trip to date. They served succulent food that set the gastric juices flowing long before it arrived at the table. Aloo paratha with fried eggs for breakfast and creamy cashew nut curries in the evenings, all cooked by the talented Ranjit Singh, a fantastic Nepali chef, then served alfresco on the rooftop with a backdrop of stunning views of the walls of the mighty Jaisalmer fortress. A steady supply of cool Kingfisher beer just about staved off the desert induced thirst.

They gave us a ground floor room at the rear of the hotel with a door opening onto the street, handy for working on Mag’s bike. The actual waterpump repair itself was straightforward enough even with a constant audience of kids and young men. When they finally tired of the show, their place was taken by a smatter of scavenging pigs, chickens and cows that roam the streets of Jaisalmer. The fun came when we tried to replace the engine cover, which had been removed to access the pump. It had three alignment points; the waterpump drive, the gearshift shaft and the clutch release mechanism and each time I tried to fit the cover, the clutch release mechanism moved. Trying to force it only displaced the clutch release bearing, forcing me to take everything off and have to disassemble the clutch itself to re-seat the bearing. I spent a frustrating afternoon playing with this, each trial ending in abject failure. In the end I gave up and decided to sleep on it.

The following morning brought more of the same, with repeat failures to get the cover alignment correct. Gagan Khan was a young man who worked at the hotel. “Call me Daniel,” he said one night after dinner as he told us how he had been born in a desert village not far from Jaisalmer and worked camel safaris for tourists as a kid. With no formal education, he taught himself English, Japanese and Korean, the principle tourist languages and had grown through this into a bright and very caring young man. Daniel appeared as I was rebuilding the clutch yet again, having knocked the bearing out. I explained the problem of trying to align all these parts with each effort ending in failure. “Then I will pray to my god for you and ask him to guide you to success.” And so, with the aid of Allah now assured, I introduced a small offset on the alignment of the clutch release and gently slid the cover into place. The waterpump engaged, the gearshift engaged and there was a satisfying movement of the clutch release mechanism as it finally slid into place. We were back on the road!

From Jaisalmer, desert roads took us north and east to a one-night stop at Bikaner. We arrived in the early afternoon in time to take a lightning tuk-tuk tour of the city to see yet another impressive red fort. Bikaner was most memorable for getting caught in a cattle stampede when our driver took us on a tour of the narrow market streets. A traffic jam dissolved into a melee of tuk-tuks, mopeds and bicycles through which a huge bull and several cows had gone on the rampage creating all kinds of mayhem in an Indian version of the Pamplona Bull-Run.

From Bikaner we moved south to Pushkar, a preeminent pilgrimage town that, I’m told, all devout Hindus should visit at least once in their life. The small town is located in some beautiful hill country and is centred on a holy lake, said to have appeared when Brahma dropped a lotus flower on this very spot.   The serene holiness of the place is evident in that the lake has over fifty bathing ghats and is surrounded by over four hundred little temples. However any feeling of spiritual uplift is mired by the fact that everything is surrounded by a profusion of market stalls and shops trying to skim money off you before you get anywhere near the holy H2O. The place is full of monks but again there’s that rub, as it’s also full of annoying hustlers trying to ply you with flowers and temple offerings and again you get that feeling in India that you have a large ATM sign tattooed on your forehead.

Having made our way through the commercial morass, we finally made it to the lake itself and it really is a beautiful place (and another Fall location – see blog Into Rajasthan). On the way in large signs dictate the rules: Remove shoes within 50-feet of the lake and strictly no photography at the Ghats. But this is India, the land where rules are writ large so that they can be completely ignored thereafter. We wandered down to the Ghats in barefoot compliance and took a perch by one of the temples to watch a family of pilgrims as they waded in to bathe in the sacred waters, fulfilling this most sacred Hindu spiritual obligation. Our ‘Ah’ turned to ‘Oh!’ as they quickly produced mobiles for a Selfie session to capture the moment. Moments later we were approached by a young man sporting a battered Nikon SLR and a plastic portfolio of snapshots of folk at the holy lake. “Souvenir photo?” he enquired. “What about the no photograph rule?” we replied. “What about it?” he smiled, looking down at his shoes.

Travelling in India we have encountered a lot of religious locations; lakes, temples and other sites where famous holy happenings took place. The Hindus in particular have an extensive pantheon of 33 supreme gods and multiple manifestations of each, so you can mix and match your deities to suit your own karmic needs. It all adds up to a massive amount of idolatry, which doesn’t always sit well with their Muslim / Christian brethren who prefer worship to be a more monogamous affair. It was in Pushkar that we were perhaps visited by one of these deities who goes by the name of Staedtler, the pencil god. Apparently his jurisdiction is not confined to pencils but he is also the god of little rubbery things. He (or more likely some of his young agents) came and prised out the little rubbery trip reset buttons off the instrument cluster on each of our bikes parked outside the hotel. This is the first time that our bikes have ever been vandalised in 14-years and nearly 80,000 miles on the road. All joking aside, it was very upsetting as we are now without trip meters on the bikes (we use these for estimating range / fuel left) and on checking with BMW, the parts are not sold as separate items; you have to buy a whole instrument cluster costing an exorbitant amount of money.

With fetid curses against Staedtler and his minions on our lips, we left Pushkar and rode on on to Jaipur and some compensation in the form of another beautiful hotel; the Anuraang Villa; an oasis in a quiet backstreet in the city, complete with peacocks in the garden at dinner. Ringing ahead to book the hotel, we were delighted to find that the manager, Om, was a fellow motorcyclist and only too keen to have us stay there. It was one of those places where the sum of the resulting transaction was much more than just food and board for the stay. On learning that we had ordered some tyres from Delhi, Om advised that he had a taxi driver going to the city next day and could easily divert him to collect our tyres if they were ready. By these little actions are the stresses of travel obliterated and our tyres turned up next day, delivered to the door.

These would be the tyres to take us through to SE Asia. Our Metzler Karoos, fitted in Dubai had been probably the best tyres we ever fitted on the bikes. They were so sure footed on all kinds of road conditions and gave oodles of confidence such that you could just point the bike over any substrate in the full knowledge that the tyres would pull you through. The downside was that the back tyre had worn out in just 4000-miles. The only replacements we could get in India were unheard of Vee-Rubber tyres from Thailand. They were cheap (@£45) and have proven to be a most excellent little tyre, yet on the day we fitted them I nearly came to a sticky end…

The rear wheels were removed and we traveled by Tuk-Tuk to a tyre shop to have the new rubbers fitted. Back at the hotel I replaced the rear wheels and then took each bike out for a short ride to check out our new treads. Maggie’s bike first and a short spin around the block confirmed the tyre seemed to hold the road well and was happily partnered with the Karoo up front, which still has a lot of life left in it. Then my own bike; same spin round the block and everything was fine. I turned into the quiet backstreets near the hotel and was looking forward to a beer in the garden to celebrate a job well done. Annoyingly I found my way blocked by a big white SUV who had just braked to a stop in front of me. I nipped around him only to find two oncoming 125’s riding side by side, blocking the road ahead. I almost ran head-on into the outer bike as I tried to get round him. We collided, left side to left, snapping off my front indicator and catching my shin on his crash bars on the way by. I stayed upright and pulled over to find I had knocked him flat.

I jumped off the bike to see if he was OK. He picked his bike up and was panicking, apologizing profusely explaining that he had been chatting with his buddy and not looking where he was going. By now my left boot was filling up with blood. We shook hands (there’s no exchange of insurance details here) and I rode round the corner to the hotel, pulling in, ashen-faced to the dismay of poor Mags and Om. I wound up with a bad gash on the leg, which later bruised from knee to ankle but the incident shook the pair of us up as it demonstrated what can happen with the slightest moment of inattention riding in India, where you must always expect the unexpected like nowhere else on this planet.

In spite of the accident, Jaipur was a marvelous stop on our Indian tour. Where Udaipur was white, Jodhpur blue and Jaisalmer amber, Jaipur is known as the pink city (although it’s really more of a terracotta). The star attraction was the Amber Fort just in the hills outside town. We contemplated passing on this as we’d by now seen quite a few red forts, monster citadels and expansive palaces on our tour of Rajasthan but the Amber Fort really was a case of keeping the best ‘til last and I’ll let the photographs do the rest of the talking on that one…

We were just about finished in Rajasthan and the road beckoned to the East. Next stop, Agra and one of the top attractions in all of India: the Taj Mahal. Then long roads across the heavily populated states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to deliver us to the northeast and the winding road on to Burma where a whole new leg of the trip beckoned.

To access the photogallery for this blog, please click on the following link: Return to Rajasthan

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Into Rajasthan

One of our favourite films of all time is ‘The Fall’ (2006) by Indian director Tarsem Singh. It is a fairytale, dark at times, set in a California hospital in the early Twentieth Century where a little girl recovering from a broken arm befriends a bed-ridden, heart-broken stuntman who suffered a fall while shooting his last movie. Over a series of visits he narrates the story, as perceived by his damaged mind, of a group of heroes as they tackle a bunch of demons in an epic journey that chases across the earth. Storyline aside, what makes this movie really ring our bell is the vividly colourful cinematography with exotic shot locations from the best bits of our wonderful planet. Add to that a stunning soundtrack courtesy of Beethoven’s 7th ‘Allegretto’ and you have an all round excellent piece of movie entertainment. One location in the movie has more striking settings than any other; Rajasthan. From the moment we first watched ‘The Fall’ we set our hearts to one day go there and that day is upon us…

From Ellora a sixty-mile morning hop took us on to its sister cave complex at Ajanta. Excavated from the rock face, as at Ellora, these Buddhist caves were neither so beautifully formed nor intricate in detail. They were marvelous all the same as some had been abandoned part way through construction offering a better appreciation as to how they were formed and, where Ellora was a marvel of intricate rock carvings, the plainer walls of Ajanta supplied a canvas for some magnificent murals. The setting itself is also impressive, a deep canyon in the horseshoe bend of a river and what is really remarkable is that the entire Ajanta site was lost to history for a long time until one John Smith, a British officer, stumbled upon it all while out hunting tigers back in 1819.

Beyond Ajanta the highways both improved and gradually emptied of traffic and we began to once more to enjoy riding some great Indian roads that led us onwards and upwards to the northwest. At a halt for a few sips of water a little ‘scooty’ pulled up to check out why we had stopped. We got a massive thumbs-up from the rider, a tall, lanky guy with a big bushy beard wearing a pair of outrageous, bright red, balloon-legged pantaloons who told us he was an astrologer. His pillion, a reserved older gent in more somber dress, was content to greet us with big smiles. On learning of the magnitude of our travels to reach this very point on the road, they leapt off the scooter and, in a flurry of elbows, started rummaging around under the seat like a magician about to perform some trick. Rather than a rabbit but still with a ‘Hey Presto’ he produced a red and white chequered scarf. “Welcome to Rajasthan!” he beamed as he draped the scarf, a most precious gift, around my neck!

‘Ra-jas-than’, an evocative, exotic name; three syllables you could roll round your mouth all day and never tire of doing so. This ‘Land of the Kings’ is the largest state in all of India, its north and west dominated by the Thar Desert where India runs into Pakistan. To the east, Delhi and Agra await. The topography of the land is sprinkled with icing sugar palaces and laced with some of the most imposing fortresses and citadels on the planet. Add to this a clatter of brightly coloured cities and you have one of the most spectacular locations imaginable. Our introduction to Rajasthan was by one of her brightest pearls; the white city of Udaipur. We got off to a bad start when our pre-booked hotel turned out to be somewhat run-down. The ‘Wi-Fi all areas’ only worked in the grubby reception that doubled as a refuge for malingering overweight men and the ‘private on-site parking’ for the bikes was merely the busy street outside. A whiff of our room through the open door delivered an initial bouquet of ‘eau de pissoir’ closely followed by undertones of general damp and poor plumbing. The guy just shrugged when we declined his hostelry. Must happen a lot I guess.

Mother India, we have found likes to play with us children, jerking your chain to bring you down from time to time. But she also cuts you slack when you least expect it and heaps little uplifting jewels to brighten your spirit when most needed… I left Mags with the bikes and set off on a short, hot walk from the bad hotel to discover one of the most memorable places we have ever stayed: The Raj Palace Hotel. Monty, the young man on reception led me up a twisting flight of stairs and into a small maze of marble floored corridors that seemed to tunnel through beautiful scallop-nibbled archways. The bedroom portal led to a cool interior, the floor brilliantly lit by a rainbow of sunlight transmitted through a peacock array of coloured glass window panels. Mags fell in love with it on sight and I got extra brownie points for our deliverance.

The splendid Royal Palace in Udaipur was the first of our ‘Fall’ locations and to reach it we had to negotiate a tangle of twisting narrow lanes that led uphill to the entrance. The way was lined by a colourful commotion of tiny shop-fronts revealing dimly lit interiors stocked to the ceiling with of all kinds of wares. At the turn of a corner the sight of the Jagdish Temple burst out of the confusion and a broad flight of steps led to the entrance, flanked by a pair of marble elephants. The white of all this marble provided a perfect backdrop for outrageous colours from the legion of flower sellers at the base of the steps. Draped in vivid scarlet and saffron saris they made us feel like drab extras from a very different monochrome movie.

Our tour of the palace commenced with a visit to the museum where pride of place went to the little round glasses worn by Ben Kingsley in the movie ‘Gandhi’. The tour led on to the rooftop of the tall palace and the rewards for our ascent were views in over the city and out over the stunning Lake Pichola. There, like a couple of incongruous icebergs floating on a blue-grey ocean surrounded by scorched-desert mountains, lay the spectacular island hotels, one of which featured as another exotic movie location; this time for James Bond in ‘Octopussy.’ This all left me with the almost impossible task to compile a photo-gallery for Udaipur, a heftier task than even trying to capture it in these words.

Leaving Udaipur behind, the road continued north to exchange spectacular palaces for one of the most impressive castles we’ve ever set eyes on; the mighty Mehrangarh Fortress in Jodhpur. We took a room in an old Haveli, an exquisite merchant’s house built like a little palace from red sandstone with marble floors and a black and white chequered courtyard. But red is not the colour of Jodhpur for, as we knew from ‘The Fall’, Jophpur is indeed Rajasthan’s fabled ‘Blue City’. An early morning ascent led us through the narrow not-yet-bustling lanes that besiege the fortress, lapping its foundations on all sides. Our reward at the top of this ancient fort, which dates back to the late 1400’s, was complimented by the aerobatics of hundreds of Black Kites soaring high on the thermals off the walls that soar themselves 400-feet above the city below. Add to this, of course, the breathtaking views over the ‘Blue City’ itself and once again we are in a most magical place.

From Jodhpur we rode way out west out into the scrublands of the Thar Desert on tranquil empty roads, our only companions the odd camel or two munching on sun-scorched stilted trees along the way. Our destination was the smaller fortress of Jaisalmer, ‘The Amber City’ due to the golden sandstone used in its construction. While not so impressive as Udaipur or Jodhpur, we were to get to know Jaisalmer quite well as on arrival we found a dreaded spot of coolant dripping out the bottom of Maggie’s engine, a sure sign that the water pump seals were on their way out. This is a known problem on the F650GS and we were advised not to use the bike until it was sorted as it could lead to water ingress into the engine, turning the oil into cappuccino with potentially disastrous consequences.

The relatively inexpensive repair would take a whole day to effect but first we needed the parts shipped from the UK. We arranged a Fedex delivery to a friend of a friend in Delhi and decided to abandon the bikes in Jaisalmer, take the train to the capitol and while we were there organise our visas for Myanmar, next country on our trip. Boarding the 18-hour overnighter to Delhi, we had no idea of the fun and games ahead as the countryside around the big city would in a few days erupt into caste riots effectively barring our return to the bikes!  India was about to become Incredible again but this time for all the wrong reasons…

To access the accompanying photo-gallery for this blog, please click here: Rajasthan