Camel trek – Thar desert

It was with great excitement that I climbed into the jeep to set off on our camel trek. That lasted until I saw the camels and started to wonder what were we doing now. The camels were loaded up, all we had to do was hop on. That was where the trouble started. With no stirrups to help, how was I going to get my leg over that hump. And this camel is as tall as a pony – when it’s still sitting down.
The first couple of hours felt rather traumatic. I was so thrilled to be going on a camel trek, I wanted to snap away as we went but was too scared to take my hands off the saddle.  This was compounded by the terrible itch that, it was clear, my camel had.  He regularly half stumbled / lurched into a step, first his front leg kicked back then the back kicked forward but neither could reached this itch.
As time progressed I did get used to it and my camel husbandry improved; we were able to productively assist with managing and loading/ unloading the camels during our lunch break and at the end of the day. The camels wandered off if unhobbled and would have to be rounded up. Gid’s camel, even when hobbled, still made a break for it. The camel was tied into a sitting position, using his rein running down his chest to the hobble rope, only to shuffle along on his haunches. We started using the foot loops, which helped a lot, although locals don’t use them. By day three Gid, who was altogether more confident with the camels, was going solo and I could take photos at a trot.
The trip itself was awesome. We rode the camels, for an hour or two at a time, along tracks through desert scrub, across sandy sections and over dunes, visiting the odd village as we went.
The villagers are used to tourists so we caused some excitement but weren’t mobbed. Rather fabulously we were invited into homes and regularly offered chai which was made on an open hearth in the corner of their courtyard – homes here are designed primarily to keep the sun off and the goats out – any breeze is most welcome.  Most people were happy to pose for photos; some performed a mini concert. Even very old people came out to see us. It was delightful to get a glimpse into village life. A small donation was always exchanged: 50 rupees for chai or photos, or 200 for a mini concert. To put this in context, a  labourer might earn 250 rupees a day, that’s about €4, so a couple of tourist visits in a day is a big bonus, especially at present in Mr Modi’s cash crisis.
Children repeatedly asked for ‘school pen, school pen’. One 15 year old lad, able to speak some English, told us there was a village school. The teacher might come on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, he said, but then miss Thursday. He also told us he couldn’t read or write. That, it would appear, is not uncommon. Our guide, Harish, who had picked up English from tourists, proclaimed that he could not read or write but his younger brother could because school had opened, in his village, in 2011. Our second guide, Saleem, couldn’t spell his own name for us when he asked us to mention him in our reviews.
The desert camp experience was fantastic.  We learnt several desert life ‘tricks of the trade’ such as hollowing out a bed in the sand and, in winter, lining it with covered stones from the fire for extra warmth and how to catch a goat to milk it for fresh milk in the chai (someone else’s goat, that is, so it may be, ahem, not entirely welcome). ‘Washing up’ with sand we’re already familiar with from our background in canoeing and kayaking trips but it was a first for sleeping on dunes under the stars with gerbils scurrying around in the shrubs behind us.
The Thar desert is the most populated desert in the world. The Indira Gandhi canal must have done much to improve the water supply but, when the rains fail, as had been the case this year, the crops don’t grow and we passed a few ploughed fields where nothing was growing. Harish had to reach deep to get water from the storage tank. But it seems to be being managed – people and animals get enough to drink, and some fields are irrigated.
There’s quite a bit of wildlife, too, although apart from birds, we only saw gerbils, chipmunks and beetles, during the actual camel trek. There were several different large birds of prey, and also Egyptian Vultures. The high point was a lunch spot near to an eagle’s nest in a tree, we saw them visiting their chicks from a distance, but when Gid tried hiding behind a tree about 70m away, the parents spotted him, and waited on some rocks a km away before returning. So not much in the way of photos from that encounter.

Riding in Rajasthan

Rajasthan, and India generally, seems a land of contrast. Leftwards leaning polititians in the UK sometimes complain about the UK’s “private wealth and public squalor”, compared with European societies: India takes this to spectacular extremes.
But, in India’s use and abuse society where rubbish piles high and waste is abandoned everywhere, not everyone is at one with this policy. Standing with a local man, beside a central shopping area in the bazaar at Jaipur, he mournfully stated that this was swept and clean this morning implying ‘and now look at it’. He shrugged his shoulders in despair. True enough, in the mornings we’ve seen ladies with twig brooms sweeping mess into dust pans, then emptying it into wheel barrows. Where next it goes I’m not sure but there are frequently rubbish mounds along the approach roads to towns and scorch marks where previous rubbish has been burnt, or earth and rubble piled on top; the reverse of our land fill sites I guess. But, the norm here is to drop rubbish in public areas, even by what would be very “respectable” people, businessmen, shopkeepers and the like. Of course, if the rubbish is edible, one if the many cows, dogs, or sometimes goats, will swiftly devour it, so all the discarded packaging is clean, and poorer people sift through the trash looking for stuff to reuse, including cow & camel dung, which are fuel – but there’s still a lot of rubbish left around. It’s different in private areas, which are often pristine, and certainly a fellow who dropped a wrapper in the grounds of Jodhpur’s palace, was very quickly directed to the bin. But public areas certainly are usually littered, shitty, and dusty.
This, together with the honking and hooting, are key things we’ve had to adjust to. Just as we’ve had to adapt to the local style of driving;  pulling out or sweeping across traffic seemingly without looking at all & he who honks the loudest is surely coming through. This latter is never more evident than when traffic is trying to manoeuvre through road works or some other obstruction. One bully boy, horn blaring, will determinedly insist on forcing a way through, other traffic forced aside, including oncoming traffic with, apparently, right of way. There are frequently speed bumps at the boundaries of villages, or in towns, but again, plenty of drivers simply use these as an opportunity to overtake. Although India’s roads are generally very good, the drivers & riders are so bad it feels by far the most hazardous place we’ve found to cycle. However, it probably isn’t quite as bad as it feels, as speeds are generally low, and everyone assumes everyone else is a maniac and not looking where they’re going.
Away from all this madness, Rajasthan  has been delightful. We’re back to the familiar waves, calls of ‘hello’ or ‘welcome’, and friendly hoots from people as our paths cross. This, together with, frequent requests for selfies to splash onto Facebook with a, ‘Look who I met’ comment.  Once stopped it goes one of two ways: crowds appear from every corner, eager to look, poke, pull, gradually trying to engaged in conversation: Which country? Where are you going? Do you like India? A script we’re very familiar with.  Alternatively, and rather less engaging, we are fair game for the hordes of children and sometimes adult village folk who often approach, fingers rubbing, with constant demands for money or gifts; seen elsewhere but more prevalent here.  Or fingers out to you and back to their mouth or that of an infant/ child.
Rajasthan is one of the poorest regions in India. Back in the 70s literacy was estimated to be as low as 18%. It’s catching up but is still in the lowest three states of India and still claims the biggest gender gap in the country with women in villages at the thin end of the wedge. Projects like Roopraj Dhurry Udyog, where 42 families have formed a cooperative, help to raise the independence of women by developing cottage industries. Items are sold locally with all profits going to the artisans but there is a long way to go; the poverty is stark. Actually, although in theory “all profits” go to the artisans, we rarely get to meet any, and they’re very quiet. One suspects the lion’s share of profits are absorbed by the sleek looking men running the shops.
It’s been interesting to see the cast iron hand sewing machines frequently in action. We’ve previously  donated 2 or 3 of these, 1930s Singers, to charitable organisations at home where they were serviced and sent to third world countries. Here they are still in action, still being serviced and still available to purchase brand new. Gid had a repair done. A quick job; less than 5 minutes, less than 15 pence. Every town or village can offer such a service.
Embarrassingly, while we waited at a level crossing in a small village, a local pointed out Clare’s back tyre was flat. We already knew it had a slow puncture but now it was indeed flat. We happened to be right outside a tyre repair place.  In we went! They quickly fixed both slow and fast holes for 10 rupees.
In amongst a great deal of curious chat as they compared our bikes with theirs. Most Indian bikes are (to us) old fashioned roadsters from the 1950s, with one speed, rod brakes, and the old fashioned British Standard metal tab lamp bracket (which is never actually used, and we remember from our childhood is a completely crap design). A newer kids bike, mountain bike looking, but still one speed, was apparently 3,500 rupees – about 50 euros. I guess Tesco, at home, get pretty close to matching both the quality and price of that. Indians often ask how much our bikes cost: We’ve got into the habit of saying it’s about the same as one of their Honda Hero motorbikes, which are about 900 euros, same as the starting price for a decent tourer (before all the upgrades).
Rajesthan has been truly fascinating but I look forward to seeing a more balanced view of the county as we sweep back in an easterly direction towards Kolkata.
Top sights along the way:

On The Road

Villages, cows, decorated lorries, tuk tuks, the army on the move, wildlife. Surprisingly good roads and amazingly bad drivers.


We already wrote a bit about Jaipur, here’s Gid’s photos.


The lake, cows, monkeys, dodgy holy men with their ribbons and paint, new age travellers and view from the hilltop temple.


Castle, palace, blue city.

Jodhpurs at Jodhpur

We saw a notice advertising a polo tournament – Jodhpur is a big army town, as well as the Maharajah’s traditions, although actually polo isn’t terribly old. We watched a British Army visiting team narrowly beat the President’s Bodyguard team by 3 1/2 to 3.


The roads to and from Jaisalmer, and our camel trek from there, were both rich in sightings of interesting Thar Desert wildlife.
Jaisalmer is twinned with West Sussex at least in the sense they both have a Hawker Hunter plane on a big pole. Ford’s, in Sussex, has more moss than Jaisalmer’s.
They both have military museums.  Jaisalmer’s has more old tanks, Tangmere’s, in Sussex, has more old planes. Jaisalmer’s castle is more impressive, more open, and mostly older than Arundel’s.
See separate posting for our camel trek, and our way out of Rajasthan, via Ranakpur and Xmas in Udaipur, also has its own posting.

After 5 weeks, it’s great to be back on our bikes!

Having learnt that at about 9.30 Delhi’s traffic exponentially increases, we’d planned an early start.  Bill paid, bike checked, tyres pumped, luggage packed, well mine anyway, we tried to get an early night.
Lit up like beacons, with strong beams & flashing lights all round, we actually got away by 6 and, to be fair, the traffic wasn’t too bad. I went for the local approach weaving through the traffic and sod the lights, while Gid wasn’t quite so bold. But we made it, safe and sound, through to Faribadad by 7:30 only to have our way on to the shiny new flyover blocked by two guards. Once off the slip road, Garmin did the job of re-routeing us through the back streets and back onto the main road at the first possible point. That was entertaining!
As always, in the latter countries we have visited, the back streets are very poorly maintained, past ramshackle buildings, with people who are very bemused to see us. Two superbly turned out school children in their uniforms, standing in the mud and squalor, proclaimed they were please to meet us, after being promoted by a proud parent through a round of English practising questions. They were so truly astonishing in their attire, politeness and pride that I was stuck for words as to how to convey my pleasure and surprise at meeting them in these surroundings.
Back on task we continued through the dust, dirt and rubble until we arrived at a railway crossing. On this occasion, Gid was well up for going local and was the first to wiggle his bike under the bent barrier, amongst the motorbikes, only to proclaim,  ‘Oh look, there’s the train’ as he glanced down the track at it approaching some 50 m away.
The Delhi-Agra route was very straight forward, one road, albeit with three designations: NH 2, 19, 44, thanks to an idealistic, but under implemented, renumbering of all India’s highways. It’s flat and well maintained so we made speedy progress. Even the towns we passed through weren’t too onerous; our background across the ‘Stans’ with, in town centres, traffic weaving around all over the place, stood in good stead. The Indians use a lot more horn though! There’s also a lot of vehicles going the wrong way, plus a few other road behaviours which we’ve not seen before, so the road’s never actually relaxing to be on.
We didn’t do a huge distance.  Starting early, it still took maybe 4-6 hours to be clear of Delhi’s satellite towns. We finally reached agricultural areas interwoven with smaller towns. We stopped in roadside cafes for a drink once or twice, but for a late lunchtime managed to pull a little way off the road for an uninterrupted picnic. (Especially after the rat had scurried away.) Looking at maps and mileages, we decided that Hodal, our current location, was already halfway to Agra.  It was time to stop. In fact, from our tree trunk, we could see a potential resting place for the day..
The Rajasthan Motel.
It was a peaceful oasis not only from our days cycling but from Delhi itself, which had been vibrant, noisy, chaotic and cramped. Partly down to Gid choosing a cheap hotel in the main bazaar. Sprawling in extensive gardens, Hodal’s motel was a total contrast. It was a bit over budget but lovely after Delhi and was almost empty of customers because the old highway, although under going an upgrade, is no longer the main road.  That, together with the extremely welcoming and friendly staff, sealed the deal.
It is part of a chain owned by the ex royal family of Rajasthan, and these very nice people looked after us again later.
India cycling day two was a 119km run into Agra, city of the Taj Mahal. The ride was more of the same: pleasant weather, tailwind, flat, good road. Hooting and horn blasting. Friendly conversations with motorcyclists alongside. In towns, mad traffic and even more hooting. Physically in-taxing but mentally exhausting. Our Agra hotel was picked from Clare’s Lonely Planet guide, but not pre-booked. As in Delhi, cost was a dominant factor, so our room, unsurprisingly, was little bigger than the bed. Again, just like Delhi, there was a rooftop restaurant, but this time it had a really nice view – the Taj Mahal. It ought to have been rather pleasant, but continuous problems with the electricity in  our room meant no light and no fan.
We’d read that the best time to photograph the Taj is dawn. Naturally, Clare was all fired up, so we had our third dawn start in four days, groan. Actually the ticketing and entry process didn’t start until 6:30 am, so it wasn’t really dawn, but still quite early.


Agra itself was similar to Delhi insofar as the Taj Mahal and its surrounding area was very clean and modern; pristine, like the shopping malls we saw in Delhi, but a stones throw away it was back to squalor.  Some areas delightfully quaint but others out of the Tudor era with squalid water channels running between houses and the road.
Keen to move on and find a quieter side to India, we had only a quick stop in Agra. Our next refuge was Bharatpur.  Another short day’s cycle but this was paradise! We spent the afternoon with a guide, Prakash,  leisurely cycling around the spacious Keoladeo bird / wildlife sanctuary. I can understand why British birders holiday here. Apart from the wealth of fabulous bird life, in this UNISCO listed site, the environment is wonderful. Antelope wandering around, cows, deer and at dusk we saw jackals. One area is currently closed because a leopard has moved in.
Our next main town to visit was Jaipur. It’s the first main tourist destination travelling west into Rajasthan; not so big and bustling, the traffic was less hectic here. We bought a two day tourist ticket and spent three days doing it whilst continuing the great 2016 Indian cash hunt, not very successfully at times.

Jaipur sights:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJust a kilometre away from the old city, in Jaipur, is Karuna Niwas. This time a homestay, but still a part of the chain owned by Ajeet and Ninja Singh, first encountered in Hodal.   Again, we were looked after very well with the added attention of  (I guess the term is) the family retainers, Roma and Bhanwer. Ajeet posing in his regalia, prior to going to a wedding:







Dealing with Delhi

Traveling across Europe into central Asia, we thought, would be a gradual adjustment in terms of cultural differences, road traffic conditions, food etc. and I guess that’s been the case. But, arriving in Delhi has been a whole new ball game. From the start, in the shuttle from the airport, we were dicing with death. Our driver must be on a reward for fast delivery, as on the crowded road he weaves for side to side, our battered Suzuki micro van was rolling alarmingly; Clare’s bike box threatening to fly off the roofrack. Vehicles weave across the road trying to fill the smallest of gaps in the blocked solid traffic. Bicycles, scooters and motor bikes (women usually side saddle on the back), a selection of motor vehicles, all palm wedged on the horn, accelerate in every direction regardless of any perceivable traffic regulations such as, travel in the direction of the traffic or pavements for pedestrians. Certainly, the ‘Look left, look right , look left again, use your eyes and ears before you use your feet’ applies on both sides of a dual-carriageway as much as anywhere else.


Stark evidence of poverty is very present in the city. There are not only beggars, as in many countries, but also shanty towns along the streets just off main highways together with debris piled high. Loads of people bedding down in the street (where do they go during monsoon?). Dirt and litter is almost everywhere.

There are so many warnings in the media, on tourist/hotel notices, and in guide books about the ingenuity of Indian people to rob, one way or another, unsuspecting tourists that it has made us uncomfortable talking to the locals, especially when we recognize some of the opening gambits or stock phrases such as, ‘I don’t want any money but …’ or ‘I just want to practise my English …’ . After a week we knew the pick up points and phrases but still got gulled a couple of times; not so badly though, as these fellows were just trying to steer us into their favoured establishments.  An auto-rickshaw driver (tally: 3 ok, 1 maniac) told us that some of the big tourist shops reward drivers with a 1L fuel voucher (about $0.70) for each tourist delivered.

The general atmosphere is one of hectic bustle and over crowdedness. If there is a space someone or something will fill it rapidly. Amusingly, dogs have cracked the system. Whilst we’ve already seen a starving horse who had a broken or deformed leg and just enough flesh to stretch over it’s bone structure, the dogs look fine and seem to find a safe place to hangout or kip. Cows roam about, apparently eating garbage. Some folk keep a few goats. In Delhi, ox carts aren’t uncommon; later in more open country, horses were preferred. A few donkeys seem to be used for riding or carrying loads. But small motorbikes and scooters dominate the transport sector, at least, numerically.

This is good fun…

I got 26 out of 30, a pass. But some of the questions seem a bit unrelated to real road practices here.

Delhi has been a place of many firsts:

-first time we’ve seen oxen pulling carts in the centre of a city,

-first time we’ve had to call reception to get our water heater turned on for a shower,

-first time I’ve watched people washing their clothes on the ground in the streets (a few had bowls most didn’t),

-first time I’ve seen ladders up to dwellings on the first and second floors above shops,

-first time I’ve watched a man tapping off the drips in one of the many recessed ‘toilets’ along the streets, which leave an ever present stink of urine,

-first time I’ve watched a man spit three metres out onto the street (I wonder what the world record is?),

-first time I’ve seen so many electric cables draped along outside of the buildings and spewing out of a sub station.

Gradually we have got used to the chaotic nature of Delhi. Like chrysalis slowly emerging from our hotel room, we have now been out and about seeing the sights and still have all limbs intact, despite a few close shaves.

Cycling out of Delhi still fills us with fear and trepidation. To conquer this one we took a cycle tour of old Delhi – their bikes, our helmets and gloves. A definite plus was that I lowered the saddle so that I could comfortably touch the ground. A real plus when constantly stopping in the many tight, crowded situations. The tour itself was fantastic. We frequently ‘whizzed’ along streets and passages wiggling in and out of traffic, people and other obstacles, initially waking people from their slumbers. Nerves of steel were required for the ‘Russian roulette’  or ‘balletic’ interactions between traffic. We soon cracked the rapidly repeating bell manoeuvre to add to the constant cacophony. The main tip, though, was “start at dawn”. And later on, going out of Delhi, it worked well.

At times, modern sky scrapers graced the sky while at ground level they seemed precariously close to the decay, detritus and dirt of the old town, despite, we were told, that the government having cleaned up the area by removing the slums.

Our tour took us round the back streets, starting with a visit to Jama Masjid, on to Delhi’s traditional bread making industry, next to a lofty view of both the Shah Jahan’s wife’s mosque and the spice center of the world, inside a Sis Ganj Sihk Temple, further on to one of the four remaining city gates and a number of other notable land marks and sights. All jigsawed in and around a four kilometre radius.

Deteriorating pockets of ornate architecture amidst the hotch-potch of cables, crumbling brickwork, faded signs, patched repairs, mark, we were told, India’s rich heritage and are left over from the Mugal society, dating back to 1857 or earlier.

Under our own guidance, and mostly in search of cash (India’s government having just invalidated all the currency over about $1 value, causing something of a nationwide crisis), we visited Connaught Place and other parts of New Delhi, built towards the end of the British period, and travelled on the shiny new metro out to some new malls, at Noida, to get some bike parts at the big Decathlon store (note to other cycle-tourists: Don’t expect much in terms of spares, we took the only 9 speed chain).