The Ecosport had been dying to get out of the basement. We decided to take it out on a 2000 Kilometer spin.
Lets get out today to beat the fog tomorrow morning
It started with “Oh! I've left the wallet and the phone at the office, so we'll need to go there first” said Nisha . That's how our grand road Trip through the Rajputana country began. We'd left early evening on the 23rd Dec 2014 to beat the fog, and decided to stay at Shahpura on NH8 near Jaipur. The guys at the RTDC motel, stubbornly holding fort against the advance of modern technology, refused to recognize the booking on my smart phone and insisted that I get a paper receipt - by finding a cyber cafe on the Highway! Incredible India never disappoints and sure enough we found a small town tucked behind the highway with printing facilities.
Dinner was paneer cooked in what tasted like chat masala. Since we had left in a rush we spent the rest of the evening sorting our travel gear and books for the rest of the journey.
Early glimpses of Mehrangarh fort
The morning of day 1 we started a little late, at 8AM - hoping to beat the fog. Not happening. We drove right into the white world between Jaipur and Ajmer. In foggy conditions, I generally try to drive behind a faster car so that I can follow the lights. Unfortunately, on this stretch the other drivers also had similar ideas. It was a spectacular race where each driver was trying to get behind the other one. The rest of the drive was pretty uneventful except for an interesting signboard that kept coming back every five kilometers. This was Dr. House uncle - cured all sex and booze related problems - as long as you called and said “Jai Hind” instead of “Hello”. We reached Jodhpur around lunch.
We’d chosen a guest house called Leon House, a heritage property once owned by the assistant to the Maharaja of Jodhpur. The staff was really laid back. So laid back that we couldn’t even find them when we arrived. A massive manhunt later I located some of them smoking and playing cards in the staff quarters. Reluctantly, they checked us in. The room was a large one and the bathroom was as big as the room itself. We had lunch and were off to see Jodhpur. We started with Sardara market, a chaotic market in the old city selling everything from spices, clothes to plumbing wares. Unless you’re from outside India and want to experience the exotic Indian city life, this area gets on your nerves. We found a clock tower in the middle and decide to climb it to get away from the crowds. Nisha’s white skin made the ticket price suddenly go up. We had to come out with our best Delhi Hindi to convince them we’re Indians and will pay the Indian entry fee.
This was a 100 year old clock tower and we started talking to the man who’s family has been responsible for running the clock for two generations. He told a lot about the history and legacy of the clock, but I only remember the smell of pee on the top of that tower where there was hardly any place to stand! We made a rapid decent and indulged in the famous Makhaniya Lassi Sri Mishri Lal’s shop nearby.
Dinner was Europeanized Lal Maas at Indique. This restaurant gives great views of the stunning Mehrangarh Fort sitting on top of a Haveli turned hotel. At night, even the rest of the town which is a riot during the day looks calm, serene and golden in the evening from this vantage point.
What a fort!
Mehrangarh is an imposing fort. We decided to spend the most of our next day there. With audio guides and smartphones in tow we had a really great time there. The fort is probably the best maintained anywhere in the world, at least among the ones I have seen - and I’ve seen a few. Clean, great food, a world class museum shop and a restaurant which served beer at the Chokelao Bagh, which sits at the foot of the fort.
The event of the day was someone feeding the eagles from the top of the fort. This is a daily ritual. This man comes with a bag of meat and starts throwing its contents into the air. The eagles swoop in and catch the meat with their beaks mid-air. Hardly anything falls on the ground.
At night we had to move to another place due to booking conflicts. This was another heritage property. So decided to ask the caretakers about the heritage. He said its a hotel. Then I point to the pictures of dangerous looking rajputs with guns and playing polo on the wall. He got confused. I got confused.
Life in a village
We took off early in the morning on day 3, towards Jaisalmer via Osian and Pokhran. The road after pokhran is pure fantasy come true. A two lane road, straight as a pole, smooth and with no traffic. Add to it a desert on your sides and some hillocks emerging and disappearing and we were cruising. Metallica blaring from the speakers added atleast 20km/h to my speed and I was consistently driving at 140 KM. Before hitting Jaisalmer we were stopping at Khuri, a village with dunes and staying at Badal Singh’s house.
The detour to Khuri was even better. The road dipped and recovered every few minutes making it a virtual roller coaster. The view had changed to a more scrubby desert dotted with windmills, the occasional peacock and lots of camel and sheep walking around sleepily.
Khuri is a different world. Badal has been inviting guest’s from across the world for over 30 years now. Its a simple village house with a few huts, few rooms and lots of character. We met other lost souls from Delhi and other cities and devoured home made dal, sabzi and bajre ki roti. We spent the early evening visiting the dunes and while some folks went for a night stay in the desert we preferred to stay back. The night was star studded and I ended up star gazing and old monk drinking for an hour or so after dinner until it got too cold.
Living like the kings (or their servers)
Driving into the Jaisalmer fort parking lot the next morning was like driving straight into hell. Angry policeman, shady parking-wallas and nasty looking guys ready to pick up anything from rags to your car. While planning this trip I had debated in my head whether to stay in the fort or outside. I chose the former and till now it felt like the wrong choice. Our hotel guys helped us figure the parking logistics and somehow we made it to the fort first in the car, then to the door in an auto and the final leg on foot. I saw this crazy t-shirt with the rajasthani turban, a moustache and aviator glasses hand painted on it - I bought it on impulse en route to our sleeping pad.
For the next two days, we just sat tight in the fort, visiting some of the must-see places and seeking cheap camel leather stuff, but mostly just wandering from one restaurant to the other. This is a living fort and the kings, their servers and priests have lived here from the beginning and 400 families still stay here. One of the families is that of our Hotel owner. We stayed at Victoria - rated as one of the best family run hotels in India. The owner Pankaj is a great guy and we spent hours chatting about his business, our personal lives, his vision for his hotel and music.
Dinner was at this restaurant called Jaisal Italy at the foot of the fort- done in traditional rajasthani style dishing out authentic Italian fare. The scene was the usual setting..people sprawling... screaming at waiters for delayed orders... Indian guys trying to make conversation with female firang tourists.. And some people munching bhang cookies which you get at the government approved Bhaang shop downstairs. The fort stood handsomely in front of us..the golden evening lights hiding all the flaws and muck you might otherwise see. The fort from the inside transforms itself into something regal at night. Very different from the crowded bazaar it is during the day.
By the time we were walking back it was really late and we were in a dreamy state as we walked through the amar pole, the palaces and jain temples in near emptiness.
On day five, having had our fill of the Fort, we turned towards the the other big attraction of the city - the Haveli’s, which the rich jain traders built several hundred years back. Some of these Haveli’s had such fine work that the Royal palaces in the fort were no match. We spent some time around Patwa Haveli. Instead of hiring a guide I chatted up with a puppet seller who gave me a quick history tour. One of the Haveli’s was owned by Salem Singh who was known to abduct girls and was generally a hated character!
We were supposed to start our long ride back home so I unwinded in the evening by spending yet another evening reading In Xandu, sitting on top of the fort till late at night.
Our route back should have been the same as the one we took a few days back. But we are adventurous and we like to try new things. So we trusted google maps and took some of the state highways and district roads that were shorter. Bad Idea- we drive through route with craters right from the moon. I was scared of getting a flat Tyre but we finally hit normal roads after about ninety minutes of one lane village roads.
We toyed with the idea of during straight back to Delhi but it was to far away and we stayed at a home stay in Samode in the Shekhawati region north of Jaipur. This area is famous for its Haveli’s and the Shekhawati style of painting. Our homestay was a haveli in the middle of no-where with a single inhabitant who had painted her house from the inside into a replica of the Sheesh Mahal at Samode Palace. The house was like nothing we had seen before but Nisha was convinced this place is haunted and ate her meal in mortal fear.
The silence, lack of people and being in the middle of nowhere, added to the effect. But we had no choice, tired as we were, we decided to brave the ghosts and sleep off, hoping to wake up the next day for our ride back home