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RoadNotes: Bicycle Touring Daily Journal; Rajasthan, India #1
January - February, 2012
written by Gretchen Howell


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January 14, 2012 Jaipur to Naiwai 65 kilometers

We left on the day of the Kite Festival. It's an actual holiday, as in many stores are closed up and everybody is out flying kites. The kites speckle the sky like confetti. They are simple square kites made of crepe paper or plastic, little or no tail. The trees are festooned with captured kites, like the Kite-Eating Tree in Charlie Brown comics. Everyone on the street is staring up into the sky, or jerking at a little invisible string. The little boys have long sticks to whack stranded kites out of trees and power lines. It was great fun to watch as we exited the city, a ride that took over an hour. I don't know how big Jaipur is, but it took forever to get out of all new construction and suburbs and new developments on the outskirts. We ate lunch outside of a big temple, fried dahl and vegetable and roti, with cone-shaped terra cotta pots of sweet lassi. A kid dressed in a dusty raggedy Monkey God costume wandered by hooting at us.

Civilization gradually dropped away and we were suddenly out in the desert. Brown and stubbly, there may have been crops in the fields at some point but they're all gone now. It was windy and bleak. My skin lost all moisture. Camel carts passed by. As my speed drooped in the headwind, I suddenly remembered that I don't like the desert. Why had I let Tim talk me into coming to this dry dusty place? Why hadn't I argued more for peddling south and visiting turtle beaches and partying in Kerala? Pissed at myself for signing up for 3 months of chapped lips and bleak landscape, I silently fumed for a the last couple hours of riding. Tim saw how much I was struggling and offered to set up camp for me right away. Camping in the dust didn't appeal to me at all so we continued on with me setting the pace at a grumpy 10 kph. Finally we came to a crossroads, one road leading to a town that had a hotel. Naiwai lay at the base of a rocky mesa we'd been watching all day on the horizon. As we approached, we could see the walls of an ancient fort built at the top of the mesa, kites flitting about the rocky walls. Weird hairy long snouted piggies scampered about the streets. Camels snorted by. (Okay, I love the camels and my life will be complete when I get to pet a baby camel.) We pulled into a hotel with a big welcoming sign, a moth-eaten plush tiger in the hallway and a peaceful grassy backyard.

 

The hotel owner told us that all the restaurants were closed for the holiday so he would take us to his house to have dinner with his family. His wife and two daughters served us and watched Dance India Dance while we ate. I got a Hindi pronunciation lesson from the 12 year old daughter, who was adorably gawky. The food was awesome, lots of veg and dahl and interesting dabs of chutney. (Indian chutney has potential; I'm still not used to the taste but it could turn into my next yummy tangy sauce like Mexican salsa or Korean kimchee.) Dessert was the best part with a dish of “carrot sweets.”


January 15, 2012 Naiwai to Tonk 40.3 kilometers

So far I'm not so impressed with the riding in Rajasthan. The highway is long and straight, in the process of being upgraded to a four lane road. The un-upgraded parts are patches on top of patches, full of relentlessly hooting trucks. The trucks seem to be in competition for out-pimping each other with tassels and ribbons and very loud sound systems, speakers mounted on the outside so everyone can enjoy the tunes. There is lots of dust and headwinds and nothing much to look at in the barren scrublands. It's not funky fun desert like Baja or Moab. I picture it to be more like El Paso desert, even though I've never been to Texas outside a few airports.

There were a few visual distractions in this scrubland: we rode passed an un-electrified amusement park. The tired old Ferris wheel was powered by the three men who walked on the struts in the the middle of the wheel to make it spin, each chair filled with an unsafe number of passengers who occasionally left their seats to clamber around the structure with the ride operators. Loud green parakeets wheel chattering along with the breeze. Vultures soar in towering updrafts to glide in the upper reaches of the sky. Weathered old men in bright turbans herd goats through the brush. In the distance, a camel herd grazes on desert scrub brush. Farm crops are sparse. The main business of the region is mining. Rajasthan marble is exported throughout the world and decorates countless buildings in the region. Even the fences are made of marble.

In the early afternoon, we pulled into Tonk, a sizable town with interesting old mosques and temples. We rode through the twisty streets, through the marketplace, asked a couple people about hotels. One man on a motorbike led us up some small side streets, stopped in front of an archeological site, gestured towards the gates and sped away. We stared at the sign on the gate. The sign said we could be prosecuted for defacing the site, but contained no clues beyond that. A group of kids ran up to investigate us. One boy decided to give Tim's pannier a rude shove when he rode by so we gave up our search in that area and left. Back on the crowded main street, we spotted a young man on a bicycle with racing handlebars. Encouraged to meet a local cyclist, we tried asking him about lodging. He zipped off into traffic, stopped to wait for us to catch up, then whizzed off again. Finally we realized he was only trying to outrun us, not lead us anywhere in particular. After a few more bouts of conflicting directions, we decided to give up, head back to the highway and look for some place to camp in the dust. Tim is an expert at roadside guerilla camping. I am far less rugged. At this point, I was pretty tired of the whole business and not a very nice person to be around. The afternoon did make me realize how much help we got in Bangladesh, when every day perfect strangers would regularly take time from what they were doing to lead us around town to find a decent place to stay.

Back on the highway we found out where all the hotels had been hiding. We checked into a decent enough place and chatted with a French couple who'd stopped for a break on their drive from Bundi to Jaipur. They assured us that Bundi was fantastic. Our room was decent but the water is so cold and the temperatures drop fast once the sun goes down. Who knew I'd be wishing for a nice warm hat in the desert?

Late at night we noticed the growing clamor of many conversations outside our room. I poked my head out the door and found the large hallway full of chatty old men lying around in mats and blankets. There were at least twenty of them happily arranged on the floor like a little old man slumber party. Just like the kids, they had a hard time quieting down and woke us up a few times with their chatter. The next morning the hotel staff informed us that they were pilgrims on their way to some holy site. Not sure if they're walking or in vehicles, but my guess is a bus since they all seemed clean and chipper, not tired out from walking all day.


January 16, 2012 Tonk to Deoli 59.6 kilometers

Today's ride was perfectly level and straight on a bumpy road. There's plenty of road construction, meaning we had to switch surfaces and lanes frequently. Eventually this might be a regular divided four lane highway, but in typical India fashion people drive any which way on any old lane. The scenery was a bit greener, more crops and less scrub. In the distance we can see hills and plateaus but we reached none today.

We ate lunch at a truck stop. Instead of chairs, people lounge around on wooden bed frames strung with woven rubber nets or strips of old tires or rope. People like to hang out in the sun here, maybe they are really feeling cold in the winter. It's not cold at all, really a perfect temperature for cycling. Lunch is chapatis and dahl, less rice and more bread. The truck drivers sipped tea and took bucket baths in their undershorts. They definitely monitored our every move during lunch but generally gave us space.

Tim really wants to camp out here and keeps pointing out likely camp spots. I suppose we will eventually but it doesn't look so appealing to me, too much dust and thorns. We got a nice wheel-in, ground floor room just outside of town instead and had room service for dinner.


January 17, 2012 Deoli to Bundi

We finally reached the hills today and, man, did it wake up my legs! Even with the constant dodging around bad pavement, the long straight flats do not inspire me to cycle fast. I think Tim would love to be riding faster. If I were better at drafting, I could stick on his wheel and follow along, but with the rough road and traffic I can't stay on. Once we got in the hills, I got into the novelty of climbing and jetted right up. There was one old fort sitting up on a desert hill. I bet there are bunches of abandoned old forts out in the desert.

Another tasty lunch stop at the truck stop. I asked the owner where the toilet was and he motioned me around back the building. I went around back and discovered a field of waist-high bushes.

We passed a lot of mine traffic and some foul smelling kilns. I don't know what they were cooking in those big ovens but it really stank.

It was really cool arriving in Bundi because the view of the castle, the fort walls, the blue buildings and the lake all hit you at once. We rolled into the first hotel on the strip and negotiated a good cheap room (rp250 a night). The garden was full of big monkeys crashing around in the trees. The hotel staff gave them chapatis to keep them from defoliating the tastiest shrubbery. We found out that some other cyclists had just left that morning – some Germans riding recumbent trikes, pulling a trailer with their two dogs.

For dinner we tried a Rajasthani thali. It had a pumpkin curry and came with a bread crumble mix, which together tasted like spicy pumpkin pie.


January 18 – 20 Bundi

Bundi is a town that might save Rajasthan for me. The old city buildings are ancient-looking with intricate ironwork and cupolas and towers and cool secret passageways and twisty windy lanes to explore. Many of the buildings are painted blue and looming over the town is a big castle. The castle entrance is a huge gate for the elephants to walk through. On the second story surrounding the courtyard are the fancy balconies with cool marble columns for the Rajput ruler to lounge about with his servants and dancing girls. There's a screened-in section for the ladies in purdah, they can see the action from lattice work windows in the wall. The ladies get to hang out in the coolest garden with a big pool in the middle. Some of the old wall murals have been saved or restored. They depict war elephants fighting, troops amassing, fields a blooming. Some of the paintings are done in flaking gold, some have obviously been repainted, not always with so much talent. Also there is the hugest bee hive swarming over the entrance. We couldn't explore all of the rooms, but we found plenty of little nooks and neat places to look out over the blue village. I found my perfect little blue reading nook I'm going to make someday. The windows are covered with colored stained glass set in a lattice.

 

Foreigners must pay a higher entrance fee than Indians to enter the castles, and there's another charge for cameras. And the attendants do check your camera tickets! I tried just paying for one, but a guard saw Tim's camera and insisted we pay the full price for a video camera. Even though we weren't shooting any video, we paid the fee only to have both our cameras mysteriously stop working not five minutes after we'd handed over the cash. I'm sure we'll make up for that small gap in the castle photo record. I think I could get into castle exploring, but a few pictures of marble carvings and restored murals go a long way.


January 21 Bundi to Bijolia 69 km

Bundi was hard to leave but the ride made up for it. We finally hit some real natural spaces today and cool scenery. We left town on a side road, opting for a more direct route on a smaller road. It took some asking around but finally we got on a little-used road and headed back out into countryside. Slight hills that appeared to be an ancient lava flow, black rock pitted with thorn brush and lichen. We topped a long hill with a nice view of the desert landscape, red beige hills and a shallow lake on the horizon. We rode on to a savannah like region and paused to sit on a fallen tree trunk in the scrubby shade. In the sunny silence, a line of people materialized from the brush, tall-brown ladies carrying bundles of sticks on their heads. They are adorned with clunking bracelets and anklets, a few wear absurdly large nose jewelry. Their bundles are heavy, you can see the strain in their backs and rigid torsos beneath the bright colored saris.

Traffic was very light and the landscape was mostly wild, we both got excited to finally do some camping. We'd spent the morning gradually climbing to this sparse hill land and we both wanted to find a camp spot before civilization started creeping back in. We stopped to eat lunch at a windswept chai stand and bought crackers. A few kilometers later we filled Tim's water bag at a small pump and tank at a farm. A small brown face peeped around the corner of the tank and I circled around to investigate. Two girls in red saris and a boy in a school uniform appeared. They stood stiff for a picture and then giggled shyly as we shook hands.

Tim's campsite radar was on full alert and long before sunset he pointed out a dirt track running to a lakeside and some low rock walls. “Let's follow that road and see if we can get behind the wall. We'll be out of sight.” There we found the perfect place to hunker down, the stacked slabs of slate blocking the wind and hiding our campsite. The lake was created by a small dam on the opposite shore. In the distance we heard the dull thump of explosions. Judging by the truck traffic, there are quite a few active mines around.

 

I made vegetable noodle soup for dinner while Tim turned into Handy Smurf Boy Scout super camper. I've never seen anyone so pleased to be sitting on the ground in an old cow pasture. At night we were woken by the yips of coyotes just outside the tent. “They're really shy,” Tim whispered as he flicked his headlamp on and off. The animals ran off without a whimper.


January 22 Lake camp to Abandoned homes camp 61.2 km

Some farmers visited us in the morning, full of puzzled looks and questions. They seemed amused by our camp and motioned that we should head over their house for breakfast. We thanked them and declined as I was already cooking an experimental breakfast. I wanted to make rice pudding with the ginger and spices and chunk of molasses sugar I'd bought at the Bundi street market. I boiled the sweets together with white rice but wasn't happy with the results. If I'd had a blender, I could have made horchata, but as it was I'd only made a sweet rice gruel. Then the farmers returned with food: a few chapatti, a dab of dahl and a bowl of fresh milk. The milk was thick and gloppy, undoubtedly unpasteurized. Just what I needed to save my rice pudding.

It was a smooth ride, a few nice hills, and a gradual return to green agricultural land. We had lunch at a roadside restaurant, a surprisingly filling vegetable dahl and endless warm chapatis. I think I prefer the chapatis to rice, but they're so yummy I always wolf down far too many. There was a rolly polly herd of fat puppies at our restaurant. A businessman riding a motorcycle stopped in for lunch. He quietly fed the puppies one chapati chunk after another until the whole bunch of them was gathered up neatly underneath his lounger. Before leaving the restaurant, we decided to fill up our water bags in case the perfect campsite presented itself.

This area was more densely populated so guerilla campsites were harder to find. Finally we saw a small block of abandoned house sites. The houses were made of stone, the windows and entrances blocked with stacked rocks. The small yards were fenced in with low stone walls and the furthest one from the road looked like a reasonable place to set up for the night. We tried to get off the road with no one seeing us but one ragged goat herder boy noticed us. Soon enough, he came visiting with more boys. They stood around the fence watching us silently. One group of teenagers, a bit more confidently tough than their peers, boldly strode into the yard. They planted themselves in front of Tim and the leader made motions that Tim should give him money. The rest of the crowd reacted disapprovingly, the old men wandered away, gathering younger boys along the way. Tim indicated that he wasn't paying anything. If it had been a village elder doing the asking, he might have felt differently, but neither of us were feeling particularly generous towards this little jerk. With a few disparaging jibes, the boys finally left but headed into the brush rather that across the highway to their houses. Dusk crept in and our home for the night felt distinctly unwelcoming as we both knew that boys up to no good were lurking nearby. Just as it got dark, the attack finally came. Two rocks whizzed through the air, one hitting the tent and another glancing off some rocks. We'd both been expecting it so it wasn't a surprise and there was no use in trying to outrun local kids in the dark. We sat in the protection of the stone walls, waiting to see if it was a one-strike attack. Boys like that, according to Tim's boy logic, will make a sneak attack and then run away. They haven't got the patience to sit in the dark for long.

In the middle of the night, Tim tapped me awake. “Heads up,” he warned. A flashlight beam was coming down the path from the highway. We watched it flash and flicker but to our surprise, it didn't reach our tent. Instead our potential visitor turned and headed back the way he'd come.


January 23 Camp to Chittorgargh 47.1 km

Woke up to flat tire and flat sleeping pad. I found a pottery shard under the tent that caused the bed flattening. Stupid terra cotta, it jabbed a hole in the tent floor too. I don't know what caused my back tire to go flat. I patched a hole in the tube but couldn't find anything in the tire, maybe it was a thorn needle jab.

We bounced around the bumpy road for awhile before turning onto main highway today and, surprise surprise, it is perfect smooth pavement and hardly any cars. It is ridiculously empty. We can ride side by side and talk without interruption, we can take up the whole road if we want. There are real tractor trailer trucks here, not the funky tinsel ones but real ones pulling big shipping containers. This road must be coming from some big port.


January 24 – 26 Chittorgargh

Chittorgargh, or Chittor for shorts, is the site of one of the biggest forts of Rajasthan. It was the capital of Mewar for 8 centuries. We hired a tuk tuk driver to take us up to the top of the plateau where the fort towers 50 feet over the city. Now I wish we'd visited the fort on bikes. It's a short steep climb to the table top, then a meandering 7 kilometer perimeter road around the assorted ruined palaces and temples. You could easily bike it, and stop off at any ruined temple or castle or view that caught your fancy. My favorite part was the main entrance, a huge elephant archway with a stupendous view of the surrounding plains. We could see Highway 76 snaking across the patchworks of fields and a smoggy cement plant, but it's easy to picture the epic bloody battles they fought here centuries ago. While the warriors marched out to certain death against Muslim invaders, the women left behind in the forts committed jauhar, choosing to burn themselves alive rather than be captured. Gruesome.

I climbed up the eight stories of the Tower of Victory alone, as Tim was wary of bashing his head on the low stone ceilings. Every bit of the walls and ceilings is etched with exquisite detail, although the steps are worn wax smooth and slippery. The tower's name is a bit strange as it seems to celebrate what can best be described as a tie or stalemate in battle. Outside, dozens of long tail monkeys gamboled about in the sun, playing with their squealing babies. I was surprised to see two monkeys grooming an ugly feral pig. They all seemed to be good buddies. Monkeys and pigs, I guess it makes sense that they're in cahoots.

At one stop, we saw a man with a very shiny horse. I swear he must coat that horse with Vaseline. She was all dressed up in fancy bridle and saddle. Her owner, eager to sell us rides or photos or something, jerked the mare around by her mouth until she was twitchy and irritated. She was by far the healthiest and shiniest horse I've seen in India, but I've still no intention of being led around atop a pissed-off horse. On our way back to the hotel, we passed a stable of four white horses, also well-fed and healthy looking. A silver coach was parked on the street nearby, sitting there next to the hawker stalls and fruit carts. I wonder who can afford to keep those gorgeous fat horses and silver coach. Cinderella? Back in the days of the Rajput, they had huge Royal carts pulled by elephants.


January 27 Chittorgargh to old quarry 44.7 km

Looking for camp spots, we followed at path and blundered upon an old stringy couple farming in the brush. The old man faced me with his long haired eyebrows and black threads dangling from his luxurious eyebrows. He glared at us intensely, then flung up his arm towards the highway. Tim was tired, back sore and ready to camp. We passed some unpeopled hills guarded by a sagging barbed wire fence. We lifted the bikes over the barbed wire where it nearly touched the ground and moved into a small old quarry. Chunks of quartz large enough to sit on and lean the bikes against, just far enough from the road to be hidden but not too much pushing to reach. A couple goat herders saw us, grown ups this time, not obnoxious kids. When the sun went down we had the desert to ourselves. That damn patch on the blow up mattress isn't holding. Tim woke up on the ground again but keeps insisting he's okay. If I can't repair that mattress, we'll have to find a piece of foam or something. Maybe a fat yoga mat?


January 28 Old quarry to Udaipur 72.5 km

Sort of a long ride today. The desert is pretty much the same but now there are more hills. The highway always has an appropriate grade so not too much huffing and puffing uphill is necessary. Some of the trucks on the road are pretty overloaded with marble slabs. We saw one crashed over on its side, all the marble broken and scattered. We also saw the blades of a giant windmill, packed on long load flatbed trailer trucks.

Udaipur is not a hard town to ride into. The streets get sort of narrow towards the lake, but the many signs advertising Lassi - Handmade Books – Octopussy Hotel/Restaurant let you know that you've entered touristlandia. We picked a place straight out of the guidebook. It has birds and trees painted on the walls and pretty stained glass windows. If I was the sort of girl who could shop, this town would be paradise. I'm so envious of the Korean backpacker girls who are dressed in head to toe brand new flowing hippie clothes.


January 29 to February 5 – Udaipur

Our hotel, in fact, most of the hotels here, have solar panels on the roof. I know it's the desert and I ought to conserve water but the hot water is magical. I usually just drag in my dirty clothes so I can wash them at the same time, thus maximizing my under-the-hot-water time. Our hotel also has a German bakery downstairs, very authentic I'm sure, and they bake the most fantastic apple crumble. I've been eating at least one slice a day.

Udaipur has a couple of cool castles. One you can visit and a couple are hotels. In fact, the castle hotel here is really where most of Octopussy was filmed, not in Bundi. If you ask the guys at the restaurants here, they just laugh at the idea that Bundi had anything to do with Octopussy. Some of the restaurants here play the movie every single night. Those poor waiters.

We went to the castle one day but didn't go to the floating palace/hotel. It's very fancy and expensive, not actually floating but the castle covers so much of the little island that it appears to be. You can actually hire out the fancy rooms there to do weddings, which might be even cooler than the beach wedding in Bali or Mexico. I saw a couple of very nice horses in town. Maybe those are for the fancy wedding carriage. I wonder how they can afford to keep these horses looking so great, they're not cheap animals to care for.

I bought a bird book finally. I've been really wanting to identify some of the hawks I see flying around. I think we saw one stork fly by one night at camp. It was expensive (650 rupees) but I couldn't find a used copy. It's interesting to see the bookstore shelves full of books written in English by Indian authors. Not just the standard Rushdie and Naipaul and Roy, but lots of new hip writers. I read One Night at the Call Center last year, actually I found it for $1 at a discount store in New Zealand. There's a literary festival at the end of January in Jaipur, we just missed it. I would have dug it but not enough to stick around in Jaipur longer than a few days.


February 5 Udaipur to camp

Packing up and carrying all the bags downstairs always sucks. Camping is so much easier. Also, our bikes were locked up with the family's bikes and somehow got extremely dirty. Like someone's been sweeping on top of them. Both our chains are filthy now and not shifting cleanly.

We rode north along the two manmade lakes. The streets were decorated for some kind of celebration with cables of tinsel blocking out the sun. We even got to ride down a red carpet. Outside of town, we caught a pretty good headwind in the morning but in the afternoon the wind sort of whipped around.

The ride to Mt Abu is a little longer than we'd realized, over 150 kilometers. The desert is hillier and more interesting in these parts so we can get some good camping in. The train station stop for Mt Abu is a town called Abu Road and then the road heads uphill to a plateau region, about 1200 meters high. With luck we can find a nice mountain campsite on the way up the climb.

The weather is perfect for riding. Winter in Rajasthan was a great plan on Tim's part. Just one look at the landscape here tells me that any other season would be miserably hot but now the temperature is ideal. It's chilly at night, and I still don't have a warm hat. I couldn't bring myself to spend money on clothes after all.

We sailed out onto the divided highway, recently built and found ourselves alone on the road. This big beautiful highway with practically no traffic, in the middle of India. Every day I think it will end and yet here it is again for another worry-free day of riding. We rode side by side, chatting in the tailwind, enjoying the sweeping desert hills rising before us.

In the late afternoon, in a patch of hills we spied a road leading to a small reservoir. We skirted around the hill and found a semi-flat bit of land next to the lake. The lake was filled with bird life and we spent a lovely evening eating soup and looking up birds in my bird book.


February 6 camp to Pindwara 70ish

No way to pee in the morning as there were too many people standing around. The girls were sweet, laughing at our tent (“Ahh! Look where they sleep! Right on the ground!”) but the dudes just wouldn't bug off. We packed and went to a restaurant down the road. Lesson of the day: pee early. Nice dahl for breakfast, tasted like split pea soup. Later we stopped someplace for tea and they charged us 60 rupees for two chai and one itty bitty bag of chips. When I started complaining, the guy's kid dug out the one English menu with the big prices. We'd have paid a decent amount for regular food but they didn't have a thing to eat.

Rode through some gorgeous scenery, big mountain ranges, lakes in the distance and a big swooshing downhill glide that probably lasted 10 kilometers. That part was great except the two tunnels! Tim speeds up but I get a little frozen and terrified when the road in front of me is a big mysterious blackout. There could be a a giant hole in the street that I'm about to go crashing into. No lights in the tunnels but the reflective bits on the Ortlieb bags do the trick with just the light from the end of the tunnel.

The turnoff from the state highway to Pindwara took us down a narrow country road that turned to packed dirt in some spots. Could this be the right way? We saw a few likely camping spots, a dirt road headed towards a little reservoir. At a corner we asked some older men on motorcycles where a hotel might be. Two painters, wearing paint splattered clothes and carry a ladder and buckets, offered to lead the way. They took us on a merry ride through town, turning here and there until we arrived safely at a train station hotel. Huzzah! We'd have never found this place! The owner and his two charming little sons welcomed us and smilingly carried bags up to our third story room. My heart leapt when I saw the hot water heater mounted on the bathroom wall, but alas, the electrical system was not quite strong enough to run the heater.


February 7 Pindwara to hill camp 42 km

Another perfect day of riding with tailwinds and that gorgeous divided highway. We've left the rolling hills and entered a valley between two chains of hills. Somewhere off to the right in Mt. Abu. The book describes it as a plateau region, but from the highway it looks more like pokey hills than a flat-top. Somewhere in those lines of hills is a pass that we will ascend tomorrow. Tonight we'll find a campspot on the ride up. When we arrived in Abu Road, the railway stop for Mt. Abu, we noticed there were plentiful 'English Wine Shops,' unusual in this region. We just couldn't resist stopping at one for a bottle of whiskey. I rose every man's eyebrows by making the purchase instead of making Tim take care of it.

We picked up water and vegetables and started climbing the slope to Mt. Abu, checking every hole in the guard fence for likely camping spots. A path leading back to some statuesque rock formations looked a good bet. While Tim was scouting it out, an old rail-thin woman carrying a baby with burns on half its face asked me for money. Burned babies are a soft touch for me. Tim came back and we shuttled the bikes and all our equipment up a treacherous rocky path to a campsite seated at the top of a small rise with great views of the valley floor and the rock formations surrounding us.


February 8 Hill camp to Mt Abu 19.8 km

Woke up to a gorgeous morning and it felt especially great to be camping in such a pretty place, especially since it was my birthday! We had birthday oatmeal and coffee, enjoying the sun and quiet until we were discovered by children from the huddle of shacks down the hill They giggled from the surrounding bushes, whispering and daring each to creep closer. A skinny, rag-tag bunch they were, clothes held together with pins and wind-calloused cheeks. We shuttled our gear back to the road with our chattering entourage close under foot. At the roadside, I pulled out my camera and the kids squealed. Suddenly the bolder boys were squirming to the back of the crowd. A cool young girl, about ten years old, presented herself for her photo-taking and leaned artfully against the fence like an experienced fashion model.

Our ride that day was a short jaunt up the hill to the resort village of Mt. Abu. A good climb, the first we've encountered in many months, but it was a dream of a ride. The climate was cool, the views refreshing, and our gears made short work of the gradual incline. After cycling in Sikkim, any incline less than 10% is a breeze. We stopped for a snack at a roadside shack and watched an old man shooing monkeys out of his wheat fields. We realized that had we climbed a bit higher the night before, we might have been camping with monkeys. Now, these are the long-tailed monkeys, slightly better mannered than the maniac red butt monkeys, but I'm sure they could still make a good nuisance of themselves in camp.

We pulled into the town in the afternoon, after paying a 'toll' of 10 rupees each, and found the polo grounds in the center of town taken up with a huge circus tent. Many flyers announced the presence of a famous guru, in town for a conference on meditation. Well-to-do Indians and a few foreigners on the streets wore name-tags and entry passes to the event. We climbed a last little hill, passed the World Peace Meditation Museum with Laser Experience, and found our hotel for the night. At the entryway were two cycle tourists! Tragically they were just on their way out, but we had a moment to gab about bikes and traffic and routes. They were a couple from Canada, riding local bikes with ridiculously small bags tied to the racks. “We've only got one change of clothes. It gets a little smelly at times,” the woman told me.


February 12 Mt. Abu to Pindwara 49.75 km

The downhill out of Mt. Abu went by much too fast. We pulled in for a snack at Abu Road and then set out back the way we'd come in. The wind wasn't completely against us, but it wasn't really with us either. The temperature rose dramatically once we were back on the plains. I'd dressed in warm clothes for the downhill and got overheated quickly in my wool socks. I cooled down a little at a faucet at a gas station, then we set out north again. Pindwara lies at the junction of two highways, 76 and 14, but the turn-off is a little vague. One map shows it directly at the intersection, another shows it a few kilometers off on highway 76. The horizon offered no clues and we muddled around till we found the series of dirt roads leading into town. At the railway station we found the hotel we'd stayed in before where we got a much-appreciated welcome from the friendly owners. Once again, the hot water heater failed but we splashed off in cold water anyway, anticipating a night of camping. We got a different room this time, facing the train station. We were woken up several times in the night by thunderous train arrivals.


February 13 Pindwara to Hay Stack camp 67.1 km

A troupe of monkeys hung out on the roof of the next door building the next morning. They looked just like a group of human moms taking their kids to the park. The babies scampered merrily in the overhanging eucalyptus tree while the moms lounged on the tin roof grooming each other lazily.

Our wonderful days of riding with the wind at our backs and a smooth uncrowded road under the wheels are over. We turned north on highway 14 and we're back on the old style Indian road. Rutted roads and dangerous traffic. The wind is swirly and rarely a help, the sand is full of thorns. The homes and people we pass show more signs of poverty. With more than 250 kilometers to go till we get to Pushkar, we're both feeling a bit grim about the ride we're facing.

 

We considered taking a hotel room in a town near our stopping point for the day, feeling a little knackered for camping. We pulled into the first place, a resort that was vastly out of our price range. The next one in town asked for the same price with an 8 am checkout time. The next two said they didn't take foreigners. Tim's back was hurting and I was pissed off and we rode into the headwinds stressed about where we might sleep that night. We filled up Tim's water bag at a cafe and pressed on. At a small intersection we saw a rushing canal running next a dirt lane between the vegetable fields. We turned off and headed down the bumpy lane and presently came to a long disheveled shed. We moved the pile of thorn brush piled across the driveway and snuck our bikes in. We discovered a cow milking building, a pile of hay stacked in one corner. Birds and chipmunks scratched happily in the straw and we smoothed out a cushy spot for our tent. Besides one old man in a red turban we met on the road, no one saw us sneaking back into our bedroom for the night. We spent a sweet and quiet night nestled in the hay and went undiscovered until we left the next day.

 


February 14, 2012 Hay Stack to Pali 55.3 kilometers

Lovely morning. It was quiet and peaceful, besides some very chatty birds. We saw a family of small ferret-like animals scratching around in the bushes (no idea what they were, I haven't got a mammal book) and a bold field mouse rustled around our campsite. No one came to visit. On the path back to the highway, I stopped to chat with some ladies washing clothes in the canal. The prettiest lady chatted back bravely, the rest ducked and giggled.

Out on the road our happy morning bubble got burst. The pavement was crap. The road is being slowly expanded but still only in the phase of women clearing brush and leveling the dust with men lounging around 'supervising.' Most of the roadside businesses were gas stations for the multitudes of ratty trucks. The narrow road leaves little room for the trucks to get around us, meaning we had too many close brushes with death. I was in near panic mode and soon called a stop for lunch and a chance to catch my breath. Lunch was a nice paneer masala but our English speaking restaurant owner charged us a price equal to a hotel room. Beware of solicitous English speaking restaurant guys. Back on the road, we braved the truck traffic for another hour, then pulled over at an abandoned building to take a break in the shade. Some skinny ladies carrying loads of firewood on their heads stopped by. First they asked for money, then food, then hand lotion. While we were distracted by the ladies in front of us, the older gal slipped behind them to try to rifle through my panniers! Tim, ever watchful, stood up to shoo them all away. The raggedy school boys who'd gathered slipped back into the brush and then threw a well-aimed rock at our bikes. Man, I hate that. It was a disheartening moment.

A little while later a wealthy couple in a minivan pulled us over to take some photos. Turns out they'd just been married half an hour ago, and just met a few minutes before that! Although they are both well-educated, they'd agreed to an arranged marriage and were on their way to their honeymoon.

The wind was in our faces and the trucks an ever-present hassle and I was worn to the wire. Our goal was the town of Pali where we'd been told the highway would improve to a wider, divided road. Just outside of town we came to a hotel and decided to check in. The first price we were quoted was much too high but after letting the tallest guy there have a ride on Tim's bike, the price dropped to a manageable one. And we could roll the bikes directly into the first floor room. The man who brought the guest registrar wanted to take a look at my passport so he could peruse the different visa stamps. Then he brought in a folder containing his collection of currencies from around the world. He had money from over 80 countries, mostly given to him by different hotel guests. He was most curious about my visa from East Timor and was disappointed to hear that they use American dollars there, not their own currency. I asked if he collected coins as well, then presented him with the fistfuls of coins that have been weighing down my bag for the last 5 countries. It really made his day, you should have seen the smile on his face and I was delighted to give those coins to someone who would really appreciate them. (Tim was not so delighted to discover I'd been carrying so much useless extra weight.) I'd tried giving coins to my nephews before and they immediately asked to exchange them for 'real American money.' If anyone's got some extra currency they'd like to donate to this guy's collection, especially African money, you can send it to Arvind Bansal, c/o Motel Maharana, NH 14, GUNDOJ, District Pali-Marwar, Rajasthan, India.


February 15 Pali to flat camp 40.3 km

Miserable day of riding. Four flats! All on my front tire, an ominous development. We woke up to one flat. I repaired a puncture but soon after we started it went flat again, a new hole on the seam of the tube. I patched it again only to have it fail less than ten kilometers later. We were battling against constant bad wind, bad roads, and trucks that came much too close for comfort. I had dirt in my teeth and, worse yet, I was down to my last new inner tube. While I was stomping in the sand in frustration, three men on a motorbike pulled over to see if they could assist and to share a bag of tiny sour apples. That was a nice cheer up and we soldiered on. Around 4 pm, we rode through a town inhabited by a huge ashram. They had lovely grounds, what we could see behind the tall fence lined with barbed wire. Just past town, we pulled off onto a farm lane. There was really no hope of finding another haystack. The desert here is brown and dry and flat, a mighty hopeless looking sight when you're riding into headwinds with dust in your eyes. We settled for a bare patch of dirt hidden behind a lump of thorns stacked high to make a fence. The thorn fence offered some wind protection. We spread my old blue tarp, really a large rain poncho, and sat on the dust, finally ready to relax after a tough fought measly 40 km. Just as I raised my coffee cup of whiskey, my front inner tube burst again and hissed itself flat into the dust.


February 16 flat camp to Barr 62.9 km

My last flat was due to a faulty inner tube that burst at the valve. Can't be repaired. Back home I'd take it back to the shop but there's no returns in India. That was my last new tube, I'm down to patched tubes now and there are no Presta valve tubes for sale in this country. I might have to let Tim get my rims drilled out, whatever that is. I'll make due with patches for now.

We had lunch at a truckstop restaurant. They had a huge water pipe in the corner and we noticed some of the drivers taking shots from a soda bottle full of murky liquid. “Wine,” they told Tim. “Driving?” Tim asked. “No, sleeping now.” They pointed at the bed frames lined with rubber straps and mimed taking a snooze. The food was simple, vegetables fried in sauce, chapatis baked in an open flame oven. The drivers were friendly and curious and passed around Tim's card, translating and commenting to each other. It's hard not to like these guys when we meet them at the restaurants, but on the road it's a different deal entirely.

Our map showed a railway stop at Bar, a likely spot for hotels. We pulled into the first one we saw and after a little negotiating, got a decent room with hot water buckets brought up. First hot water since Mt. Abu! It's amazing how much dirt comes off with a little hot water and soap.


February 17 Barr to thorny goat camp 53.5 km

This morning we climbed up a lovely little hill. Orchards and rock formations and birds. It would have been a terrific ride had it not been for the maddening onslaught of homicidal trucks, honking at three second intervals. We got run off the road by oncoming passers charging full blast towards us. When the landscape changed back to flat thorny brush wastelands, we arrived in Beawar and finally turned onto a recently finished upgraded highway. It was a dream to escape back to smooth pavement and a road wide enough to accommodate a few bikes on the side of the road. The road was still partially under construction in many section, large sections of pipe waiting to be laid. Dusty businesses lined the road, mechanic shops, smoky restaurants, industrial support. We had a late lunch and started looking out for a place to camp. As the area was more heavily populated, our choices were limited. Finally we spied a path turning off, heading towards a sparse chunk of woods. I swung down the verge and into deep sand and managed to skid down on mt side into an ungraceful lump. At least I didn't fall into a thorn bush. I was dusty and scraped but nothing serious. We pushed back out of view (but certainly not out of hearing) of the highway and found a sandy area to set up in. Tim was taking out the tent when his bike over-balanced and fell over, flinging the water bag onto a thorn brush! Horrified, we watched as a few drops of water oozed out of the bag, then stopped. Apparently the holes weren't too big.

Later we were visited by a stick-like old man in a turban who shook his long staff in the trees to knock down seedpods for his goats to eat. We saw a hare dashing through the long grass and bats nipping through the encroaching night. My camping mattress goes partially flat every evening, so we take turns using it with a coat tucked underneath for added insulation. Blowup pads and desert camping do not mix. At least my mattress still has some loft. If the other mattress gets a puncture, I'm not sure it will provide any insulation when flat. My patch kit is going to get a good work out in this environment.


February 18 thorn camp to Pushkar

Rather than cooking breakfast, we packed in early and scooted over to a nearby restaurant. It was run my Muslims, but still vegetarian. After so many days of riding, we're both craving protein. This area is devotedly Hindi and most people are vegetarians. What we wouldn't give for some barbeque these days!

We continued down our wide dusty highway. We passed a recent accident, two big trucks that plowed into each other hard enough to smash and decapitate the cabs of both trucks. It was a morbid sight.

Presently we entered Ajmer. Tim dealt with a gas station owner who didn't want to fill his MSR fuel bottle, while I snapped pictures of the uniformed young school boys who gathered around to admire our bikes. Kids here do look smart and interested, it might be fun to be a teacher here. Traffic in Ajmer was the usual city craziness, and we followed English signs around a lake and out towards a hill pass. There is a little climb to get to Pushkar and the road is lined with monkeys. The nice kind of monkeys but I am always suspicious that one might suddenly get a wild monkey urge to leap on my back as I sweat my way slowly by. After a half-hour climb, we crested and sped down the road past dozens of signs for restaurants and hotels. Welcome to tourist-land. Pushkar is a holy sight for Hindus and a gathering spot for hippies from all lands. No meat or alcohol, but everything else a weary traveler needs after weeks on the road. Pizza, hot showers, long mornings in the cafe.

I left Tim sitting in a wicker chair and made a survey of nearby hotels. Actually very reasonable prices and most places promised there was hot water 24 hours. I chose one with a huge room next to the water. Later we figured out that claims of hot water were somewhat exaggerated, and the morning puja at the lake begins with a great clamor of enthusiastic bell ringing. But the falafal place we found is great and Pushkar has some of the best people watching ever, especially if you're interested in observing the wild Dreadlocks in their native habitat.


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