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RoadNotes: Bicycle Touring Daily Journal
Rajasthan #2 and Punjab March, 2012
written by Gretchen Howell


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Pushkar, to Shimla, Himachal Pradesh

1,050 kilometers (more or less) Pushkar

After a non-stop 350 kilometer ride up from Mt. Abu, we arrived in Pushkar. We'd been battling winds, lots of truck traffic, and stomach buggies so we were all ready for a nice break. This was the perfect place. Pushkar is smack dab in the middle of the tourist trail. This is hippie heaven- full of ashrams, dreadlocks, and baggy poo-catcher pants. Most foreigners here look like they've been hitting the rainbow-colored karma cola pretty hard. It's great people watching. Find a balcony with a street view and you'll spot Merlin with a hangover, an extra who walked off the set of Easy Rider, and the gentle hippie-folk parents who come to India to raise their children free from the corrupting influence of Western society.

There are plenty of Indian tourists here as well- Hindi pilgrims who come to visit the holy Pushkar lake and one of the only Brahma temples in all of India. Our hotel is great. It looks out over the lake with all its ghats and temples. We've got a daily view of the throngs of people splashing around in the water, along with flocks of pigeons and the sacred cows that loll around the ghats. Pushkar does have extra cuddly street cows. It's not uncommon to get a nudge from a big flat nose on the street, a friendly bovine reminder to feed your local cow. Our place also comes with a set of matching black cats (small, medium, and large) that wind around the potted plants and catch pigeons in the mornings. Each day we get woken up by the morning bells, rung at 5 AM to start the daily routine of worship.

Since the city is so holy, there are strict rules: no alcohol or meat allowed. Actually, any waiter at the rooftop restaurants will happily offer to break the booze rules if you feel like drinking overpriced beer. And on one of my wanderings I was suddenly overwhelmed by the smell of barbeque coming from a walled courtyard. We were both craving protein, but made due with felafel wraps stuffed with avocado and paneer. It was too bad about the vegan chocolate cake.

At the Enfield motorcycle shop, Tim drilled out my bike's rims so that we could fit in inner tube with Schrader valves. There are no Presta valve tubes for sale in India, and my latest round of flats has left me with no unpatched spares. The motorcycle shop guys were kind enough to lend him a round file, but they were completely un-impressed with our pushbikes. The Enfield riders take themselves pretty seriously here. We also took our bikes to the car wash. As a bonus, the car washers gave our gears an un-environmentally correct spray of petrol. I was a little shocked when it happened but I've got to admit that my bicycle shifts like a dream now.


March 4, 2012 Pushkar to Merta City 61.1 km

Just outside of Pushkar we saw huge signs advertising “Beer and Meat.” Apparently the holy ban on meat and booze expires at the town limits.

We saw far too many dead and hurt animals today. Most tragic was the medium sized black cat at our hotel lying dead on the stones of the ghats this morning. Maybe she fell off the roof or perhaps the temple dogs got her. On the road later we saw a squashed Indian Roller bird, its brilliant blue feathers sticking up like a pin cushion. Then we passed a bunch of goats milling in the street around their fallen herd-mate. One goat sat on the median, struggling to rise off her broken hindquarters, the other goats nudging her with their noses. A man on a motorcycle stopped. He wore a clean shirt and pressed pants, but he got off his bike to gently pull the injured goat to the side of the road.

Thirteen kilometers from town, we stopped for tea and watched a brave tourist who had rented a motor scooter to get out of town. I guess he wanted to get off the tourist trail. He studiously ignored us and squatted on the ground to take photographs of dirty people with his humungous camera.


March 5, 2012 Merta to Pundia 33.16 km

Just awful winds today. We gave up after a few hours and found a hotel. Some school kids on bicycles led us to a decent roadhouse. It felt so good to have a bath.


March 6, 2012 Pundia to camp 73.15 kilometers

It was a hot, hot ride. I was so overheated I actually stuck my feet into a slimy cow water trough. If it hadn't been so green, I might have gone in all the way.

We saw a herd of camels today, stretching their giraffe necks to nibble on thorn trees. A knobby-kneed baby camel trotted and pranced amongst the adults. Tim said I squealed. We also spotted a family of small gazelle type deer with stripey horns. I haven't got a mammal book. I don't know what they're called.

We met some medical students riding four on a motorcycle all the way back to Jodhpur. They were so cramped they had to take turns standing up to give the others enough space. They've got 100 km to go. They rode alongside us for awhile, just for something interesting to gander at, I think.

We made camp just off the street in a walled-off lot. Noisy but nicely hidden as long as no one entered our space. The fence was a little short for Tim's height. Mostly we stayed seated.

 
A camp spot that only a cyclist would consider. We were right on the side of the highway, hidden as long as we walked hunched over.


March 7, 2012 camp to Jodhpur 56.12 kilometers

We meant to have a short day today but as we approached the outskirts of Jodhpur, I suddenly realized that I'd left most of my cash lying on a rock back at camp. Tim was nice enough to make the 18 km fast return trip with me. We had the wind at our backs for the run back but a stiff wind in our faces for the do over trip. Thank goodness the money was still there. I don't know how I managed to do something so stupid. Just a brain lapse.


Jodhpur

Jodhpur has a fantastic fort that looms over the city. At night it's lit up and looks awesome. I was seduced into a cheap room with a great view of the fort, but came to regret my hotel choice. Although he seemed to mostly cater to Japanese backpackers, the owner was strangely mean to them, one nice girl in particular. At the rooftop restaurant one night, he and a waiter started lecturing this girl about being too giggly. “Why you laugh so much? It's not good, nothing funny.” The other kids laughed uncomfortably, thinking it might be a bad joke, but he was serious. Tim and I couldn't stand it and started defending her. There's absolutely nothing wrong with Asian girls giggling and if that guy doesn't know it, he really doesn't understand his customer base. When he left, the rest of the Japanese kids turned around to thank us. I don't know why the boys didn't say anything to the owner. Even after we shot him down, he stuck around to glower at everyone. Maybe he was drunk, or just crazy, but when Tim was out of earshot, he started into me for sticking up for his little victim. It really gave us a bad vibe. If you're ever in Jodhpur, avoid the Discovery Guesthouse. Yogi's Guesthouse down the alley seemed a much better choice. The owner let me trade paperbacks at no charge, and gave me a new canvas shopping bag.

We were in town for Holi, one of those festivals where people get drunk and smear each other with colored dust. The chalk dust is very hard to wash off, so everyone's got pink stained hair and hands and clothes for the next week or so. We avoided the staining as we're both down to just a few wearable shirts. We loved the fort, even though we're both a little burned out on forts and castles by now.

We visited the shop with the 'best' lassi in India. This according to the LP. It was good. The best? Actually, I liked the Jaipur lassi better but this one was okay. Maybe I'm just not so excited about saffron. Does it taste lemony? Jodhpur is a good place for a nice wander. It has really neat alleys and blue buildings and markets. Herds of camera happy tourists wearing zip-off khakis and sunhats. Oh, those cameras! I've always liked my tiny point-and-shoot. I could upgrade but I don't think I'll ever own a camera that requires its own luggage.

There were no monkeys in Jodhpur. I wonder if it's too desert-y or if the monkey catchers have taken them out.


March 13, 2012 Jodhpur to Osiyan, 46.66 kilometers

It's a bit of a maze to leave Jodhpur. There are multiple routes to get to the same place, highways and back ways. I believe we did a little of both. The compass was very helpful. All in all it was a pleasant ride. In Osiyan we found a guesthouse with the help of some young boys. Osiyan is home to some neat Jain temples and a couple of luxury camel camps. Our guesthouse was luxury by no means but totally decent. I'm not sure how anyone finds the place as there is no sign out front.

The owner told us a morbid story about a murder that happened here a few years back. I was so curious I had to look it up online later. It seems an American woman was murdered by her teenage son in one of the luxury camel camps. He was apparently upset about his parents' divorce (which happened 8 years previous) and his mother's refusal to reconcile with his dad. He was also pissed that his mother was set on sending him to school in Italy. He'd bragged about his plans to kill his mother on his Facebook page. (What a Genius!) He ordered a banana and a knife from room service, cut his mother's throat, and threw her body out on a sand dune. Then he fled. The police caught him as he tried to board a plane back to the States. He's now serving a prison sentence in India.


March 14, 2012 Bap 55.79 km

We wanted to find a hotel at Bap but our choices were lame. A 4000 rupee haveli (The guy at the desk asked me, “What company are you from?”) or a roadhouse of suspicious morals (“The room is open at 6pm.” “Can I see it?” “Not available now.”) Downhearted, we left town. Tim spotted a space out on the plains and we pushed out to find a sweet little pond, dried up a little so it was shrunk down from its ghats. There were plenty of birds. Four black ibises (ibi?) poking in the mud, a chatty green parakeet. A few goat herders saw us but left us alone. At sunset we sipped whiskey and then slept with the fly off, Venus and Jupiter shining bright in the sky.


March 15, 2012 Bap camp to Cow Skull camp, 58.66 kilometers

We passed by a few solar panel projects and got invited to visit one. It's very interesting. We saw wind generators too. Much nicer than the mineral mining. There are lots of camels in the desert too. They are mostly working camels, either hitched to carts or dressed for camel desert safari trips. We see the tourists getting bused or jeeped around to and from their camel trips. Tim calls them the 'Oh My God” buses because of the open-mouthed stares you can see briefly through the windows. There were some French tourists that stopped while we were having lunch but they ignored us.

We had a slight disagreement over camping arrangements and had to backtrack to Tim's first pick. It was tough getting the bikes over the rise to a sun-baked field but there really were no alternatives. The fields closer to the next town seemed to be a dumping ground for dead cows. Since they can't eat the cows, they're just left to rot and be eaten by scavenging vultures and dogs. It's quite gross.


March 16, 2012 camp to Bikaner 51 km

We were visited by several goat and sheep herders in the morning. I got to hold a baby goat and was instantly in love. The baby sheep get tired and try to lay on the ground when the herd moves on. That's why the herders occasionally have to carry the lambs. They always have a donkey or two to carry herders' luggage. The herders had to spoil the visit by asking us for money and being obnoxious about it.

Dusty wind and big quarry-blasted landscape. Saw some more little gazelle deer and a few really strange-looking big deer animals, almost like a pre-historic horse.

The Bikaner guesthouse was really hard to find. It's off the LP map, one of those places where they just sort of point you in the direction and then you're meant to find it yourself. I guess you're supposed to be taking a taxi or something, not riding a bicycle. We stopped at a railroad crossing that didn't seem to ever open up. The motorcyclists and bicyclists squeeze under the crossing barriers while the car drivers just shut down the engines and take a long break in the sun. Tim is a bit too tall to make the duck so we had to wait it out. After asking a bunch of people, we finally found a nice young man who led us down an alley full of cows to our guesthouse.


Bikaner

Our hotel was supposed to have a dip pool but it was disappointingly empty. Instead I sat around with my feet in a bucket of water. Lots of tourists at our guesthouse as Bikaner is touted as the 'alternate' camel safari town. We found a nice supermarket and a roasted chicken shop. I don't think the hotel lady was too happy about the chicken bones. They're vegetarians here and I think some kind of animal got into the trash that night. Actually, the hotel family was not the friendly happy bunch described in the LP. I think they put on happy smiles for the guidebook writer, and then put those smiles away, never to be seen again.


March 22, 2012 Bikaner to camp, 40.61kilometers

The camels are great but the desert is getting old. It's really very hot and the wind blows dust in my eyes. By some miracle we've avoided more flat tires, but not for the lack of thorniness. The little reservoirs full of birdlife have dried up, instead we camp in the dust and get far too many visitors.


Pushing a heavily loaded touring bicycle through the sand has to be a cyclist low point.  We had to get away from the road so we pushed back to the tree line in the distance and camped between two sand dunes.  We woke up to a tequila sunrise that only an empty desert can produce and a herd of little deer-like animals


We thought by laying the bikes on the sand, we might stay hidden from the road. It worked until some people appeared over the sand dune behind us. The ladies carrying bundles of sticks on their heads left after a few minutes, but the goat herder guys obviously didn't have as much work waiting on them. They stuck around for a long time to have a good stare.


March 23, 2012 camp to Dust town, 73.56 kilometers

I'm not sure the name of this town. It is incredibly dirty.


March 24, 2012 Sri Ganganagar 64.01 kilometers

We saw scores of army trucks on the road. Must be some sort of war games, or some trouble with Pakistan. We are close to the border. We saw big Abrahms tanks on truck beds. One sort of ran us off the road. The trailers they're on are much wider than the usual Indian truck. Big attack helicopters flew over us. Tim says they're Apaches, pretty scary-looking machines. There are lots of convent school in this town. My favorite is called Harsh Convent School.


March 26, 2012 farm house 57.25 kilometers

Punjab has lots of water canals, plenty of farms, few places to camp. A family invited us in, our first time in India. They were Sikhs. Grandma sews like a machine and wears a small dagger in a holster. Dad gave us a ride on the tractor. The laborers gave us a large bag of green peas. The cousin came over to translate after the teenage son's abilities were completely exhausted. The disabled cousin crashes around house on hand truck and watches Sikh devotional videos. We watched a video of a wedding, an arranged marriage. The cousin explained to us that she's unmarried and her parents are currently seeking a proper husband for her. Later at dinner we were taught the proper Punjab way to eat roti.

 


March 27 Ahogar 63.69 km

Men drive pony carts here and stand up on the carts, holding the reins while the ponies trot along. It's much greener now, a treat to see so much green, even if it does mean that our camping days are over. Great big fields of wheat and orange trees. There is even more military action going on. We get passed by huge convoys of dull green trucks. There also seems to be some tense police action going on. We passed a few roadblocks and a lot of serious-looking armed police.

After a rest day where Tim was taken to the police station to fill out reams of foreign registration papers, we've decided that we don't want to travel all the way north to Amritsar. The Golden Temple and the border ceremony sound so interesting, but really it's too hot to stay in the desert and this place is sort of vibing us out. Instead we'll turn east and head back to the Himalayas.


March 28 Ahogar to Bathinda 74.94 kilometers

Seems we made the right choice. Amritsar is the place to avoid because shit is going down. Big protests, police and paramilitary troops deployed. It's not war games, it's all in anticipation of an execution that will (maybe) happen in 3 days. Some guy who assassinated someone political back in 1995 is due to be killed by hanging (gruesome noose graphics on the news, nice touch) on the 31st. The road blocks and orange turbans we saw today, all in response, also all Sikhs are on strike so lots of businesses are closed and it's expected that Amritsar will be a powder keg for the next few days. Punjab is definitely too hot for us bike tourists now so we'll keep heading for the hills.

Saw lots of Ibises, two big woodpeckers, brick kilns stinking up the horizon, paparazzi Punjabis stopped us for “one snap please” (they're not shy!), orange trees and wheat fields, small marijuana plants lining the roadsides, very serious looking militia soldiers stopping bullock trucks, unfortunately the camels are no more, but lots of little pony carts trotting along, turbans and beards and waving mustaches. The older Sikh men with white beards sometimes look like Santa Claus in a turban. People eat their roti (not chapatti, although still the exact same thing) with their left hand, holding the bread in their right as a sort of napkin. No more camping, there are just too many people here. Oranges are ripe now and lovely. TV news showed policemen beating the legs of protestors with bamboo sticks. Not everyone is honoring the strike (bandh) as all the businesses on the outskirts of town were open, but inside Bathinda it is eerie and shuttered. Even the petrol stations are shut down. Tim met two boys pushing a motorcycle who said they couldn't buy gas as the station is closed today. Expensive hotels in this town and they are very rude at the door. It does not make me want to spend 1500 rupees on a room, especially when the guys at our cheapo place are so nice they offered me the slippers off their own feet when I walked out barefoot. Hot water bucket shower, what a luxury! Still very flat riding, getting slightly nervous about our return to the hills although the cooler temps will make up for a little hill climbing.


March 29 Barnala 57.93 km

The strike is over and apparently everyone in Punjab got on the road to drive like an asshole today.

It was nerve wracking getting out of town with all the cars on the road. Bathinda has stoplights but they don't make much difference if no one pays attention to them. Same with the road blocks outside the army areas. There are no soldiers to make sure drivers are slowing down, so everyone just swerves madly around the blocks. Tim said it wasn't a traffic calming device, more like a population control device. Really, it's amazing we haven't seen more accidents the way people drive here.

The highway had no shoulder, just a big drift of sand. When a truck passing a bullock cart came barreling straight at me, I over-reacted and flew off the pavement and skewed into the sand. My bike fishtailed back and forth. Somehow, I didn't fall down. I may have even done what you're supposed to do: shifted my weight back and squeezed my back brake. Then I had a little meltdown while Tim tried to comfort me. A crowd of curious people stopped their motorcycles to get a good stare in before I screamed at them in the most undignified way. They left pretty quick but didn't even have the decency to look embarrassed, just puzzled. Like, why wouldn't anyone stop to stare at a crying woman? What else would you do?

So, it was one of those days when I just really hate Indian drivers and nothing was nice. The road sucked, the traffic was deadly, and everyone we met was kind of a jerk. Tim said that everyone here should be smoking some of the weed that grows all over on the side of the road to calm down a little. It's true, people here are a little manic. Last night I was flipping through the hundred channels of music videos and noticing how hyperactive the dancing is. Like all those moves would look cool if the dancers weren't flailing around so spastically.

I'm sure this has no bearing whatsoever on the driving mania here, but there are a lot of nuclear power plants around Bathinda. We passed one yesterday on the way into town. Four humongous cooling towers. Then about 20 kilometers out of town this morning, I saw four more towers and thought we'd taken a round about loop back to the same power plant. Turns out it's a whole different nuclear power plant. There was an elementary school pretty close to it. Wonder if those kids glow at night. Made me think of the Simpsons for some reason. Interesting that the street signs say “Thermal Plant” instead of nuclear.


March 30, 2012 Pataila 75.75 km

Today's road had a little shoulder so the riding was much more relaxed. Also, the pot plants on the side of the road have grown to the size of small trees. They bake in the heat and the odor permeates the air. That may be calming things down too. I'm pretty sure we saw marijuana being cultivated right there next to the wheat. Some farmers were collecting it in bushels and feeding it to their horses and cattle.

But the traffic hasn't really calmed down. We saw a truck on its side, blocking most of the road. On the other side was a little white car, the driver's side completely crushed. There are plenty of these little white cars on the road, Suzukis and Tatas. I'm guessing that their owners are the new Indian middle class who drive fearlessly while shouting into their brand new mobile phones.

The wind was whipping around pretty good, but with the close traffic that was the least of our worries.

We finally found a camping spot in Punjab. It was a little tuft of trees outside an extravagant Sikh temple. Tim says we can stay at the Sikh temples for free but I was not feeling in the mood for all the staring that would go with that. The view of the temple was gorgeous. We set up camp and then heard a rather loud engine in the distance. It was a tank, roaring around in the dust nearby. No fences between us and the tank. The goat herders were unperturbed. We decided to stay and ignore the tank.

Some of the Sikhs from the temple came by to invite us for dinner and to stay overnight. We were already set up and so declined but posed for lots of photos instead. They were really very sweet.

 


March 31, 2012 Chandigarh 85.85 km

This morning a very funny man on a bicycle passed by our camping spot. He was wearing a huge turban and seemed to be holding a spear. Awhile later a military jeep parked nearby. Uh oh, we said to each other, but the policeman just waved at us as they walked by. They walked down the same path the spear man had taken. Perhaps he was wanted.

We went through a city holding a big festival with crazy traffic jams. Military bases clustered on the edges of town, each section with funny names (Soldiers in the sky). After a long day of non-stop traffic, lots of accidents and dead dogs stinking in the road, we finally pulled into the capital. What a relief. Chandigarh has bike lanes! A logical street grid! A real bike shop! Unfortunately all the hotels are much too expensive. We got good advice from the owner of the Foxfire cycle shop but still our room cost 700 rupees.


Chandigargh

Lucky break for us, we me Mr. Narindar Singh, self-appointed tourist advocate. He took us to stay a Sikh temple for 100 rupees a night (free wifi!). We had tea at lots of government building canteens and visited all the temples serving free meals. Really, this guy has too much energy for 76 years old. We had dinner at the market every night and met engineering students in shockingly mismatched plaids. Our guide took us to the Nok Chand Rock Garden. It is said to be the second most visited spot in India after the Taj Mahal. I was hoping for more junk art at the garden but there were only a few walls built of old resistors. The waterfall sections were lovely and shady. The crowds of rock and mosaic people were cool but a little creepy. Made me think of children being punished by doing calisthenics in the sun.

Chandigarh was actually designed by the French planner Le Corbusier. It's the only planned city in India. It's very easy to find your way around. Narindar Singh loves getting people around for good prices. He even had us hitching rides for free with random cars and city government buses. The bus driver was amazingly bad. In a twenty minute ride he hit two things: a motorcycle mirror and a tuk-tuk taxi. The taxi driver drove alongside us shaking his fist and yelling but our driver ignored him.

 


 


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