Wednesday, 29 January 2014

RATS, RAJPUTS AND REDTAPE- Bikaner and Dehli



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Leaving Jaiselmer was unpleasant to say the least- waking up at 5.30, walking in the pitch black to the bus station, finding we had the wrong information and having to wait in the bitter cold of predawn (but very happy to have the company of a friendly chai stall man) and enduring our freezing bodies in the rickety old bus until midday, when things finally heated up slightly. On the positive side, it was yet another pleasant Government bus ride, in an old bus that kept threatening to break down, (but made it to Bikaner before it finally did), with wonderful desert scenery.


Bus station toilets

Voting campaign, Rajasthan

Bus to Bikaner

 

Although it doesn’t have the grandeur or beauty of other desert cities Jaiselmer or Jodhpur, we’ve always had a soft spot for Bikaner- mainly because of Vijay, Daisy and their family and staff at Vijay’s Guesthouse.


We stumbled across this place by wonderful accident in 2002, and would have to be one of our favourite places to stay in all of India. When we visited 11 years ago, it was a small family-run operation focusing on camel safaris with a few simple rooms to rent. Now, Vijay and the business are deservedly hugely popular, recommended by all the usual guide books and the house is now a rather huge hotel with rooms of various prices with hot water and flat screen TVs! The expansion is not surprising considering Vijay’s immensely entertaining personality and hospitality. He’s charming, hilarious, eccentric, a wonderful host and a very clever business man. The family is from the Rajput warrior/soldier caste (for more on the Rajputs see here) and his father and grandfather were leaders in Bikaner’s unique Camel Army, so he knows everything there is to know about the beasts.


Rich with the lovely and famous Vijay


The whole family was so happy to welcome us back after so long, and we were treated embarrassingly well- special BBQs for us, amazing meals including Daisy’s famous lamb curry and rum after dinner (and a cute Christmas decorated cake on our arrival on Christmas Day), as well as discounts on all meals and drinks, and free use of the Enfield Bullet (unfortunately, we could only briefly make use of it due to the cold weather). Between the great food, cool temperatures and our unusual good health, we found ourselves in the strange situation of putting on weight in India- this has never happened before! The family didn’t seem to mind us hanging out in the lovely sunny garden (warming our bodies in preparation for the chilly evenings!) for 2 weeks waiting for our Iranian visa to arrive in Delhi. Most other guests would arrive, leave for a camel safari in the desert, have a quick look around town, and then leave Bikaner.


Our very brief day on the Enfield Bullet

With Vijay and Daisy

Rich with some of the staff, Vijay Guesthouse


It really isn’t the prettiest city, but there are few unique things to see. One interesting sight that is immediately noticeable and different from other towns we’d visited in Rajasthan is the amount of working camels. If there was any question about where all those thousands of camels were going to and from at the Pushkar Camel Fair (see here for Camel Fair post), surely a large majority end up in this region. 


Working camels, Bikaner



Number one Bikaner tourist site would have to be the Rat Temple at Deshnok, an hour’s journey by slow and crowded bus from Bikaner. In a country full of odd sights, this temple dedicated to the Goddess Karni Mata, is one of the weirdest. The rats had definitely multiplied since our last visit (apparently 20,000 live here now), and the inside of the temple was heaving with the little critters. They are considered holy, and it’s good luck to feed them and eat the food they are nibbling away on, so the courtyard and kitchen areas are covered with rats eating various foods from big bowls. It’s also good luck to have one run over one’s foot- something actually hard to avoid, as was the rat shit covering the floor. Needless to say we had a good clean up when we got back!



Outside Rat Temple with new friends- canoe mad Colin and Andrea

Rat carvings on front door, Deshnok

Sal and the rats

Kinda cute!

Rats feeding on curd, Deshnok

Rich and the rats, Deshnok

Doors leading into Rat Temple, Deshnok




Our other favourite sight was the opulently decorated palace inside what is, from the outside, a rather unimpressive pink coloured fort. Back on our last trip to the state, when all the entrance fees were next to nothing, we visited all the big forts in Rajasthan, and this was always Sally’s favourite. A particularly stunning room with mirrors and coloured glass was strong in our memories, and upon looking around, we realized we hadn’t seen it. We then saw a posh tourist couple with a guide coming out of several rooms protected by a guard, and realized this was the area we wanted to see. As the guard was locking the door again, we asked him to be let in. He informed us it would costs an extra 100 rupees. We explained we had already paid our 200 rupee entrance fee, which allowed us to look around the fort and palace, so we didn’t need another ticket. After a seemingly pointless back and forth conversation for a few minutes, he took us to see his boss, the director of the fort. This fat man behind his desk looked at us in amusement, as the guide conveyed our story, and we put forward our argument that is was very dishonest practice to ask for an entrance fee to a tourist sight, and then expect people to pay extra for things once they were inside! He was worried about damage, he said. We assured him we only wanted to look, and eventually, just to get rid of us, he waved us away with the guard, and we were “privileged” enough to view the special rooms!



One of many distressing photos of hunts in the palace

Bikaner Palace

Paintings of the heavans on the palace ceiling

Wall detail, Bikaner palace

Colour everywhere, Bikaner palace

Clouds on the ceiling, Bikaner palace

Mini maharaja, Bikaner palace

"Special" room 2002, our first visit........

Same place 12 years later!


Detailed painting on marble, Bikaner Palace



Other sights we enjoyed were the old city with it’s much less impressive havelis than Jaiselmer, but much friendlier inhabitants; the market centre in the city centre, where Richard finally relented, and after years without wearing socks bought some woolly ones at the Tibetan market; Lalgarh Palace, where although the museum was closed we were able to look around the posh hotel inhabiting the heritage building, which was like a museum anyway; and the Camel Research Centre, where we learnt the difference between various breeds (apparently, the Bikaner camels have hairy ears) and ate camel milk kulfi (Indian ice-cream).


We love the stone slab fences in desert Rajasthan

These women were panning for gold in the disgusting drains, downhill from the jewellery shops in Bikaner

Old town door, Bikaner

Old town, Bikaner

Old man with interesting face, old town, Bikaner

Painting all over the walls and ceiling, Jain temple, Bikaner

Beautiful colours, Bikaner Jain temple

Amazing carvings, Jain temple, Bikaner

Desert sunset, outside Bikaner

Desert remnants, Bikaner



The best part of our Bikaner visit was the great communal vibe at Vijay’s. Mealtimes were set, and everyone sat around together getting to know one another. New Year’s Eve was especially special, with Vijay really laying on a memorable night. Around the fire we brought in 2014 with traditional musicians, abundant snacks, rum and many family friends joining the travellers as guests. A few days later, when most of the friends we had made had left, we decided a visit to the Iranian embassy in Delhi was needed to get things moving, and booked a train out of Bikaner.


New Year's Eve fun, Vijay's Guesthouse

Fantastic Rajasthani musicians Vijay hired for the night, New Year's Eve

Happy in Bikaner palace, Rajasthan

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I don’t want to go on about the cold, but the train ride to Delhi was so freezing it is worth a mention! The AC carriages book up quickly in winter, so we were left with the unheated sleeper class, and even the heavy duty, thick army blankets we bought in Bikaner before we left couldn’t keep us warm. But at least it was through the night, and not too long (9 hours), and when we arrived and saw the homeless people sleeping on the platform, we really couldn’t complain.

People talk about how awful Delhi is, but I enjoy the diversity and variety the city brings. For a while, it was a pleasant change from the Rajasthani towns we had been spending our time in. It’s true that the area where the majority of travellers stay, Paharganj, is extremely busy with traffic, beggars, shops and touts (but no cows, strangely enough- we heard they’d been moved out of the city), and not an easy area to enjoy, and to the first time visitor it could seem like a nightmare. But moving around other areas of the city was more enjoyable.

There are people from all over India here- Sikhs and Nepalese being the largest majority, but also Indians of every shade and foreigners from various parts of the world, working and visiting. There’s a certain anonymity Sal enjoyed as a result of this (not Rich- I think we’ve already established in previous blogs that he loves attention!).

There have certainly been some improvements around Delhi since the Commonwealth Games in 2010, and the metro is the stand out. It’s an amazingly cheap, fast, smooth-running, warm (!), and yes, crowded way to avoid the horrendous traffic around the metropolis. The other difference is the number of public toilets all over the city- very convenient......and unusual for India! Unfortunately, the number of homeless people living on the streets- sometimes in odd places like the median strips on large roads, hasn't lessened. These poor souls really must suffer in the bitter Delhi winter.

Our main priority was getting our visa for Iran. We had heard this can take a long time, and we were glad we planned in advance (we're not leaving until the end of next month). We spent the first 10 days of our time in Delhi literally running around all day everyday to fulfil the various requirements of Richard’s visa (being from the UK, the process is three times as expensive for him, and 10 times more hassle). It’s a long story, and if anyone is more interested, here is a link to read the details.....

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/thread.jspa?threadID=2375858

Needless to say, we finally got it, and as happy as we were, our enthusiasm for sightseeing had dwindled, and our energy levels were drained!

We did manage to get out to see a few things, such as the Lotus Baha’i Temple- a lovely calm space to take in a breath, in between errands. The Baha’is are accepting of all religions, and anyone can go to the temple to pray. Needless to say, we prayed to the universe for our visa to come through soon! It must be one of the few places in India that is truly silent, and the visiting Indians are totally quiet (there’s no noise at all allowed inside, and it’s strictly enforced). The unusual design reminded us of the Sydney Opera House.The Delhi Botanic Garden was a disappointment to say the least. In a dodgy part of town, under the train line, and small and dry, it is the worst one we’ve ever seen. To be fair, it did look quite new, so maybe one day it will be beautiful (?) Connaught Place is a uniquely designed shopping precinct/park/market area in concentric circles. It's a mish mash of classy restaurants, mixed in with western fast food places and cheap and cheerful food stalls. The shops we really liked were the ones stuck in a time warp from the 1920's when it was originally built, and sold things such as musical instruments, crockery and suiting fabrics. We had to pass this area every time we visited the embassy or the courts, so we got to know and like the daggy, colonial feel of it.


Peaceful Baha'i Temple, Delhi

Lovely wall, Delhi

Hoo-poo in Botanic gardens- the best thing there!

Gross pan stains in Connaught Place, New Delhi


The best thing about Delhi is the food! Generally street food in India is hit and miss, and pretty basic, but Delhi takes it to a new level, especially in winter. We indulged in hot potato patties, steaming momos, sweet potatoes Indian style (masala spice and lemon),spicy chai and fresh orange juice in addition to the delicious chicken tikka we favoured at our little hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Main Bazar, Paharganj. It was a change for us to eat temperate climate fruits in season in winter, such as strawberries, apples, pears, enormous mandarins and pomegranates.



Sweet potato vender, Connaught Place

Our friendly OJ man, Paharganj

Freezing, eating potato cakes, Paharganj

Winter fruits, Delhi markets

In season pomegranates, Delhi markets


To be honest, we were pretty keen to leave after two weeks of running around- Richard was especially fed up with the madness of the place. It didn't help that rooms prices in Delhi are notoriously bad value, and we were staying in a grimy shoebox, for the same price as our beautiful, spacious room in Bikaner. A visit to the brilliantly easy Foreigners Train Booking Office saw us with an overnight train ticket to Udaipur in hand, and as our train left the city at dusk, we watched the bonfires lit outside the passing homes and shops only a metre from the track, and hoped the weather would be warmer further south.

Us in desert sunset, Bikaner

3 comments:

  1. Still so jealous and enjoying your traveling as if we where with you thanks

    ReplyDelete
  2. Fascinating that rodents have developed a cult following of their own rather than tag along with the elephant divinity Gumpadi . I did not know this, so thanks for the update on this phenomenon.

    ReplyDelete
  3. good information about bikaner

    ReplyDelete