Rajasthan Roadies

Day 1 / 2

The Pune Hyderabad express was delayed by one hour. A new arrival platform was announced 5 minutes before the arrival. This resulted in a traffic jam at the overbridge as the Bhusawal EMU had just come in then. Managed to reach VT, ahem CST, ahem ahem CSMT, only 40 minutes late. Was unpleasantly surprised to find vaccination checks happening at the station. Walked out to an Udupi Hotel outside VT, Shivalya, and enjoyed some lovely dosas. Walked back to find the Rajdhani standing on platform 18. Our Rajdhani tickets, for some strange reason, did not include meals. No worries, I thought that the rest of the group was carrying enough food to feed an army. Plus I had purchased bananas, oranges and musk melon outside the railway station. Managed to coax the attendant to get me a black tea. 

In keeping with Indian railways tradition, the Rajdhani was late by an hour. The Rajdhani air conditioning acted up at night.  Railways have stopped supplying linen after Covid. We were not carrying blankets. The train was underpopulated, so body heating was not being used to heat up the compartment. As it is, the population density is lower in AC 2 tier compared to AC 3 tier. I had to get up at 0200 hours to add some layers of clothing. Narendra got up an hour later and managed to switch off the compartment air conditioning. As a result, we all got some good sleep from 0330 hours till 0530 hours, when my fellow passengers got down at Jhansi. 

At Agra station, we sauntered across to the parcel office. The cycles, loaded on Wednesday, had yet to arrive on Saturday. Phone calls were made and the status was that the cycles had been loaded on Friday’s Jhelum express at Pune. This train was due to arrive at Agra Cantt only on Saturday evening at 17:20 hours. The tragedy was that the parcel office officially closes at 1700 hours. Narendra pulled some strings in the local medical community and managed to get an assurance of an evening delivery. 

By the time we finished our encounter at the parcel office, all of us were super hungry, because of our relatively frugal dinner. We had a pitstop at GMC Sweets, for a breakfast of bedhai, i.e. stuffed puri. We then reached Taj Resort, which is just hundred metres from the Taj East Gate. Had to wait for an hour as the checking out guests had yet to check out. Next time, we should look at hotels with a 24 hours checkout. Makes a lot of sense for cyclists.

After a quick shower, I walked over to Agra fort. On my last trip in November 21, I had a Taj dekko. Here is the blog – https://peepaltreeschool.org/parent/travel/wah-taj/. The rest of the gang was busy with the Taj. I was the lone warrior at the fort, which was a 3 km walk from the hotel. You had to walk around the Taj to get to the fort. The best part was the road had very less non-human traffic. Reached the fort at 14:30 hours. It’s very close to the Agra Fort railway station. Could hear the station announcements, but couldn’t see the tracks. 

Taj View

Taj, viewed from Shah Jahan’s prison room

Being a tech luddite, I needed help to get an online ticket. The ASI has stopped selling offline tickets. Met with a guide and requested help for getting an online ticket. They were all ready to help, but on one condition: you needed to hire their guiding service. Since the fort was the only touristy thing I had to do at Agra, I had no choice but to accede to the request. With one to one tutoring, it was difficult to be a dissatisfied student of Nadeem ji, my guide. The minimum qualification for being a government approved tourist guide in Agra is graduation. Nadeem had finished his BSc. He asked me to choose between Hindi and English, and we agreed on Hinglish. There are two moats in the Agra fort. The outer one was filled with water, the inner between the two walls supposedly had wild animals roaming around. 

Bath

Jehangir’s bathtub

I asked Nadeem about the role of forts in warfare. Were they not more tools of defence, in the literal sense? Unlike mountainous Maharashtra forts, Mughal forts were mostly in the plains and also served as housing complexes. The Agra fort housed the emperor’s palace. It was a lavish mansion, spread over 75 acres. About 75 percent of the Agra fort is occupied by the Indian Army today. The fort ramps have relatively small redstone slabs so that animals do not slip on the way up. The fort is made from red stone, shipped across from Fatehpur Sikri. Like in the Taj, the redstone is used only for cladding. The inside is all brick. The interesting part about the Mughal era brick is that it is much thinner than the modern day brick. Possibly this design was because of the bonding material used during those times. You needed a higher ratio of surface area to volume for long lasting bonds. 

Palanquin Palace

Palanquin Palace of Roshan Ara, Aurangzeb’s sister

Ramp

Elephant Ramp 

Akbar had three wives. None of them had been delivering the living male son that he wanted. (Btw, Akbar and family produced a dozen kids eventually.) He went with Jodha bai, to meet with a Sufi saint, Saleem Chisti, at Sikri. The saint informed him that Jodha bai will be delivering the goods soon. She did. And so Akbar became a fan of Chishti, so much so that he built his new capital city, Fatehpur, next to the village of Sikri, where Saleem bhai lived. He also named his newborn son, Salim, though later on he changed his mind and started calling the young man, Jehangir. Even today the original Salim bhai is still popular because of our nation’s fascination with the male kiddo. 75% of tourist traffic to Fatehpur is the mannat brigade. One is supposed to visit the tomb of Chishti and ask for a wish, actually not more than 3 secret wishes. The quid pro quo when the son is born is to organise some grub for poor folk. I did try to say hi to Salim bhai at Fatehpur Sikri, but his gravekeepers have a new condition – shorts are not allowed. Being a consistent ‘shorts’ guy and not having any secret wishes, I decided to skip the meeting with Salim bhai. 

No Shorts

Shorts Not Allowed 🙁

Walked back to reach the hotel at 1620 hours.  Lunch was a single samosa near the Taj.  Narendra had requested his pharma friend to help with rail logistics. Two of the friends landed up at 1635 hours. We went triples to the station. The parcel office staff had to be  reminded about the late evening delivery promise made in the morning.  Some more calling had to be done by Narendra’s friends to get them to agree to this condition. 

In the meantime, the Jhelum was running at the right time. We walked over to platform number 4 to receive our cycles. A last minute platform change happened, thankfully to the adjacent platform number 5. The train was 30 minutes late, as the railway signalmen juggled platforms. Upon unlocking the rear luggage van, we were thrilled. Not only were the cycles present, but they were dumped close to the door with no luggage on top of them. 8 cycles were removed in 3 minutes, but it took another 2 minutes to deboard the remaining two. I engaged the guard to ensure that the train halt could be extended by a few minutes. At times, the guard can put his foot down and overrule the local parcel office team. That would have been a disaster, as the cyclists would have been without cycles. (Plan B was to have a buyback deal from a local Agra cycle dealer.)  

We walked the cycles down to the parcel office and thankfully had a nice experience in getting them out. The parcel office superintendent helped us negotiate a rock bottom rate for a Bajaj three wheeler delivery van. Was dark by the time we got the cycles, so we had taken a call not to cycle back. The rate was set at a very reasonable Rs. 400 for the 8 km trip from Agra cantt to Taj resort. I promised a 100 Rs. tip as soon as I entered the van, to ensure that the journey was done with the utmost calmness. This would reduce the probability of the cycle spokes getting entangled with pedals during the journey. 

Our pharma friends helped me load the cycles and then left. I rode cleaner shtyle with the driver and reached the hotel at 1940 hrs. Except for Vishwanath Gokhale’s cycle, whose mudguard had come loose, the rest of the cycles arrived in good condition, no punctures. Unloading was done fast and we went over for a quick dinner across the road. The Taj Resort was super duper expensive – black tea cost Rs. 75 + taxes. Our per capita dinner cost came to the same as black tea. Managed to lose my toothbrush during the train journey. Bought an Oral B toothbrush near the Agra hotel for just Rs. 20. It came with torn packaging, so probably the first time I would be using a second hand (or should we say mouth) toothbrush.

Day 3

Bikaner Milestone

Bikaner Milestone

We started from Agra at 0845 hours. Cycled through the city and exited through the Bharatpur road. The truck took a longer route. Bought some veggies and fruits at Idgah. One tea-break later, we reached Fatehpur-Sikri. Construction of the capital complex started in 1570 and was completed in 1582. But by 1586, Akbar had left Sikri for Lahore. The problem – lack of water. Rain water harvesting was tried out. An artificial lake, Moti jheel, was also made for storing water. Did not help too much. Akbar eventually returned back to Agra, and was eventually buried there. His tomb is in Sikandra. 

Water Reservoir

Rainwater harvesting at Sikri

Sikri Gate

Cycling into Sikri

Akbar, the secular king, had 3 queens of three different religions: Hindu, Muslim and Christian. He was only 5 ft 2 inch, and I wonder if his queens were taller than him. Jodha bhai, sister of Raja Mansingh of Jaipur was the Hindu one. Marriyam, from Goa, Portugal was the Christian one and Rukaiya Begum, the Muslim one was from Turkey. 

Of the three his favourite was Jodha bai. Probably because of her beauty, her dowry and her son. He built a huge hawa mahal for Jodhabai at Fatehpur. The remaining two queens had to make do with much smaller living areas. Shehzaad saab narrated a sher about Jodha’s beauty: Shehar kare, Chaman ki kare, Bazaar main kya rakha hai, Katal karo nigaho se, talwar main kya rakha hai.

Hawa Mahal

Hawa Mahal

There were two kitchens in his palace, a larger veg one for Jodha bai. And a smaller non veg one for the other two. Jodha liked jhumkas a lot, and there were jhumka carvings on the walls of the kitchen. Her haveli had a summer bedroom and winter bedroom. Summer bedroom was facing Moti Jheel on the west. The winter one faced east and was warmer.

Jodha got a lot of dasiyas in her dowry. And used them imaginatively for playing Chaupad with her hubby. 16 maids were dressed differently to reflect the different pieces of the game. And they moved around based on the rolls of dice that Jodha-Akbar made as they sat on a raised platform at the center of the playing area. 

Jhumka Wall

Jhumkas on Jodha’s kitchen wall

Kitchen Motifs

Mummy, this is Yummy

To add to the romance, there were gardens with grape vines, rose bushes and jasmine creepers surrounding them. Fun fact – Akbar had his separate bedroom, where he slept on Persian rugs laid out on a raised platform. A chandan wood staircase was used to climb to the bed. The bedroom floor was designed to have a constant circulation of rosewater. Apart from the romantic aspect, the rosewater also served to warn the badshah about visitors. They could be heard before they were seen, as they had to splash around to get to the bed. 

Bedroom

Akbar’s bedroom

Moving on to Akbar’s professional life. His office was the Diwan-e-khas. The building had Jain, Buddhist, Jewish and Persian motifs, reflecting Din-e-elahi – which translates to learnings from all religions. This is the place where his of 9 ministers met. The badshah sat at the centre with his ministers on all sides. Birbal, a Brahmin from Chhindwara, was the older day equivalent of Manmohan Singh. Then there was the Finance Minister, Toda mal, the brains behind the Jaziya tax. He was also incharge of the khazana – or treasury, where the gold and solver coins were stored. It is said that Akbar’s queens had unlimited access to this building – and they would play ankh-micholi over there. Expensive games! And then there was his personal staff – Purshottam Das who was Akbar’s astrologer. And the famous Tansen who was supposed to be unrivalled in his ragas. 

Diwan e Khas

Diwan e khas

Tansen Stage

Tansen’s Concert Venue

Jain Style

Jain architecture inside a Sikri Palace

The Diwan-e-aam was the parliament -supreme court equivalent. Fun fact – capital punishment was quite popular, but was not hanging, it was killing by elephant. Akbar had his favourite elephant – Hiren – who would accompany him to battle. Hiren had spears attached to his tusks to aid Akbar in fighting. When Hiren died, Akbar built a special tomb for his four legged friend. 

Elephant Tomb

Elephant Tomb

Dustbin

That’s not a tandoor, it’s a dustbin 

Had a late lunch at a roadside dhaba and reached our Bharatpur hotel at 1700 hrs. It’s on the Bharatpur bypass, a stretch dominated by modern day palaces, aka marriage halls. Unfortunately, the night we were staying there were no marriages scheduled at our palace. So no free dinner! Cycled down to Bharatpur town to buy some fruits for the next day’s ride. Asked around and found that Neelam restaurant served the best veg food in town. Neelam turned out to be a take away with three tables. Unfortunately no rice was available, but I enjoyed the dal-roti. Gobbled down a few jalebis to end the day.

Stone Joint

Roof Reinforcement

Woodwork in Stone

Keystone

The stone at the center is the keystone. Remove it and the arch will collapse

Star of David

Lovely Geometry Lesson on the Roof

Stable

Controversy: Dasi Hostel or Stable?

SandStone Wall

Hybrid brick stone construction

Day 4

We had to do a 107 km ride. The group decided that we will do some cheating in our cycling and create time for a visit to the Bharatpur bird sanctuary. We had a bread butter breakfast at the hotel and left for the sanctuary, only two kilometres away. At 0745 hours, the sun was out and the birds were in the air. 

Urea Filling

BS 6 diesel engines require urea injections in the exhaust

Found a wonderful guide, Brijinder Singh. He had worked with Salim Ali for 7 years on a vulture conservation project. He told us of a vulture breeding centre that has been established near Panchkula in Haryana. Rs. 7 crore has been spent on netting in a few acres of forest to establish the centre. 150 pairs of vultures have been introduced in this netted area. By the way, the Panchkula project has been sponsored by the Parsi community. For the Parsis, vultures play an important role in their own last journeys. The vultures are being fed ‘sanitised’ meat. For those not in the know, the collapse of the vulture population has been primarily due to the use of diclofenac, a n anti-inflammatory drug used for treating fevers in cattle. This painkiller continues to stay in the animal muscles, even after the death of the cattle. When our scavenger friends consume this, their kidneys start failing in a matter of days. 

The park authorities allowed us to use our own cycles inside the park. Brijinder had gotten along a Bausch and Lamb telescope on his cycle. We would stop every hundred metres to watch some new species of birds. Bharatpur is home to 300+ species of birds, of which about 200 are migratory. The most famous visitors have been the Siberian cranes. Alas, these visitors have stopped coming here since 2002. Enterprising hunters in Afghanistan and Pakistan were the possible cause for a change in migration routes. We could see quite a few painted storks and their noisy kids. A stork is most magnificent to watch in flight. They are the silent 747s of the avian aviation world. A graceful flap of the feathers, long legs held behind to reduce flight turbulence. 

Spotted a pelican having its breakfast. As soon as the fish got beaked, the pelican was surrounded by two of its flock, and they squawked out a message of sharing is caring. Our pelican did not believe in these values, or maybe only selective sharing. Some of our feathered friends have pouches inside to hold the fish, which is given whole to the chicks. By the way, painted stocks feed semi digested food to the chicks, possibly to accelerate their growth. For in a matter of 6 months, the storks have to mate, incubate and prepare their chicks for a transcontinental journey. 

Coming back to the pelican, they have an interesting ritual of playing around with their food. The fish was thrashed 4-5 times in the water, stunning it enough to prevent it from going on a  swimming expedition in the digestive pool of the pelican’s stomach. I wonder if there are any bird species which have teeth to chew their food. Also wonder how it would be for us to swallow all our food. Will food become medicine in that case? Will our overeating reduce when taste goes away?

We also caught sight of quite a few paan kauwas (water crow) or cormorants. Cormorants are the easiest to identify because of their outstretched wings when they rest. This is to dry the wings out before the next dive. The duck family has some oily stuff on their feathers, which prevents water logging. Cormorant feathers lack this oil and so need to be dried after every dive. Fishermen have been using these birds as sophisticated fishing rods. They put a ring around the cormorant’s neck to ensure that the fish stays in the beak. I guess the fishermen must be sharing part of the catch for the cormorant’s continued cooperation. Another interesting bird to watch was the green pigeon, the state bird of amcha Maharashtra. These yellow footed birds were sunning themselves on leafless trees. You could easily mistake them as green fruits ripe for the picking, all puffed up ‘angry’ birds. 

Green Pigeons

Green Pigeons 2

Angry Birds

Pigeoned Hanuman

The God of the Pigeons 

Royal Highness 2

Royal Highness

His Majesty

 Ullu

Ullu

Ullu Ke Pathe

Ullu Ke Pathe

Cattle

Feral Cattle inside the Sanctuary

It was 1100 hours by this time. And 105 km still to go. With breaks, we average about 14 kmph, so it would take 7-8 hours to reach our destination. One good thumb rule in our cycle rallies is to stop before sundown. A decision was made to do part of the journey with cycles loaded onto the truck. We loaded ourselves and the cycles onto the truck after a 40 kilometre ride from the bird sanctuary. The 407 EX has a long load body; so fitting in luggage, cycles and their riders was a breeze.

407 Ex

The 407 Ex in the background

We reached our destination, Umeed Palace, at 17:30 hours. Unlike Bharatpur’s marriage palaces, this was actually the genuine stuff, an old palace converted into a hotel. What I liked most was a Tata Power fast charger on the property. In winters, comfort is inversely proportional to the room tariff. There is no heating at most places. Smaller rooms heat up easily because of the body warmth of its occupants. Bigger rooms have a higher thermal inertia and tend to remain colder. 

Rickshaw

Royal Rickshaws of Rajasthan

Another thing I did not like about Umeed Palace was the menu card. So yours truly and Jugal saab ventured out to a neighbouring dhaba for a lovely meal of besan ka katta. We were the only customers – the service was amazing. A bonfire was lit up for us as the food got made. Scrap wood was used to make the fire; we had to ask the owner to desist from adding plastic bags to the fire. The owner told us about how business has been sagging since Covid’s start, with tourism drying up. He has managed to survive, thanks to owning the property and being the cook himself.

 

Day 5

Started the day with a complimentary breakfast at Hotel Umeed Palace. I focused on the veg cutlets. Being a vegan makes for simpler decision making in a buffet. The choices reduce even further if you have a disinclination to wheat and sugar. After my usual heavy breakfast, we started off at 0830 hours.

Umeed Palace

Umeed Palace

One of the ways to reduce energy consumption in cycling is tailgating. My typical tailgating target is a loaded tractor trolley. And I’m not talking of holding onto the chain here. We used to have folks doing that when we were younger. The distance between your cycle and the rear tyre was only a few cm; and I shudder to think of what could happen on bumpy roads. What I do is just follow in the wake of the trolley. The big plus is drastically reduced wind resistance. This being the only reason trains are the cheapest form of land transport. I have used tailgating in crisis situations like when we had to get a Nexon EV back from Ahmednagar to Pune on half battery. You need to be alert as trolleys rarely have brake lights. Another challenge is that most times trolleys are loaded with construction material. Some of it is constantly being deposited on the road and in your eyes. 

Roadside Circus

Roadside circus artiste at Dausa

One of the things I like to do in cycling is to leave the bypass and go through the town. It saves a few kilometres as bypasses usually go around towns. More importantly, you get a sense of the local culture, by gazing at shops and sampling roadside food. I left the bypass to cycle through Dausa town. It is as large as Bharatpur. I was reminded by some posters that Dausa is the constituency of Kirodi Lal Meena, the leader of a reservation agitation which got Rajasthan to a standstill a few years ago. I rejoined the highway after crossing the railway flyover. The rail line is right next to the highway for about 20 km. Was fun watching trains whiz past, as you cycle. Imagined serenading maidens – well too old for that stuff in real life! Our first pitstop was just ahead of Dausa. Enjoyed stretching out on the dhaba’s charpoy. Off late, I have started seeing old tyres replacing jute in the charpoy construction. I found tyres to be a bit more comfortable than jute.

Railway Line

No serenading

Had a longish lunch break 20 km before Jaipur. Managed to find another tyre charpoy and enjoyed a short postprandial siesta. By the time we started, it had turned cloudy, making the ride easier. 10 km before Jaipur, we sighted a few hills ahead. Roads usually circumvent hills in this part of the country. We laid bets on whether we will be going left or right of the hill. Both parties lost. We were going up. This was what Jaipurias call the purana ghat. There was a tunnel that cut through the ghat, but two wheelers were not allowed through the tunnel. So we climbed up the whole way. Mehendale kaka had some trouble with the climb and had to be helped out for some of the way. We reached Jaipur’s government SMS Medical College where Narendra’s doctor friends had organised a small welcome for us. With a short break at the hotel to freshen up, the welcome continued till almost midnight.

Purana Ghat

Mehendale Kaka climbing Purana Ghat

Purana Ghat 2

Purana Ghat without Mehendale Kaka

Albert Hall

Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur

Day 7

I had work in Jaipur on the break day. I finished my work as the rest of the group went about their tourism. Next day, after the usual lavish breakfast at the Ramada, we cycled down 10 km to Rajasthan Hospital. Narendra’s friend, Dr Dinesh Mathur, had organised a ride with some local medicos. We reached late. Narendra had assumed that the ride would start at the Ramada itself and had accordingly given a flagoff time of 0730 hrs. It was 0830 hrs by the time we actually landed at Rajasthan Hospital.

Roadside Tower

Mughal times roadside sarais

Our Jaipur hosts had done some meticulous routing. They had planned that the route should be truck friendly, as our support 407 EX tagged along us. Next time, we will need to clarify that the truck and cycles can go their separate ways in the city. We had to cycle at least 10 km more because of this assumption. That too on a day when we were already running late and the ride was 140 km. We were dropped off by our medico friends to the Delhi Ajmer bypass, near Gopalpura and were told to take the first exit to Sikar road. One interesting thing about the bypass is it runs about 5 feet above the service road. So there is no merging of slow traffic for quite some distance. It’s a lovely design and should be a template for all bypasses.

Statue 1

Statue 2

Shani Statue WIP

Our average speed was just 12 km per hour, as Mehendale kaka, our young 82 year old, was kept company by the rest of the gang. At the 20 km mark, we decided that the average needs to be upped, if we were to reach Sikar before sun down. So we requested Imran, our vahan chalak, to stay behind Mehendale kaka, And the rest of us sprinted a bit. The group split into subgroups with 1, 2, 3, and 4 members with coconut and tea breaks taken separately. I took a shortcut via Chomu. Fun fact about Chomu: every tenth building is either a hospital, pharmacy or lab. Looks like Chomu is the educational mandi of Rajasthan. I cut down 4 km of the journey because of the shortcut and was ahead of all the groups.

Sound Blast

Band Baaja Baraat

The first riders have got the responsibility of identifying good eating places. The con side is that these joints usually don’t have toilets, definitely no ladies toilets. With two female riders that is an important shortlisting criterion. I tend to prefer the value for money food of the roadside dhabas. My favourite ploy is to stop at a petrol pump and ask for dhaba gyan. At 1315 hours I did that and was recommended to try out the Punjabi dhaba 1.5 km down the road. Found enough customers at the dhaba. That’s another key selection criterion. Negotiated with the waiter to serve us in steel plates instead of thermocol. Ordered a dal and a mix veg. Signalled to the rest of the groups requesting them to join us for lunch. But Narendra’s instructions were to go on non stop till they reach Reengus. (A nice call centre feel about that name!) Narendra had a flat enroute and his cycle had to be loaded onto the truck. 1 km ahead of Reengus, Vishwanath had a rear tire flat. Bhushan and Nandu took 45 minutes getting the tubes back into shape.

Horse Cart

Mule Nasruddin

Nandi Bull

Roadside Fauna

Lunch arrived quite late at 1540 hours. Jugal saab, who had lunched with me earlier,  suggested that the two of us could use this lunch time to put some cycling km into the kitty. The two of us left for Sikar, still 50 km away. At the sprightly age of 74, Jugal saab had decided to set world speed records that day. Your’s truly, twenty years younger, could not keep up with this young man. We were soon subdivided into groups of 1. All the towns that I’ve taken shortcuts away from the bypass had been on the left side of the bypass. To catch up with Jugal saab, I entered Palsana, which was on the right side of the bypass. Using all these tricks, I managed to catch up with our young man at the Sikar bypass. Google maps instructed us to take the Pilani road and avoid Sikar town to reach the Park Avenue resort. We reached the resort at 18:45 hours just as the sunset was happening. Jugal saab’s Strava app indicated 144 km under his belt. I must have done 10 km less thanks to my shortcuts. But this was still my longest ride in a long time.

Young Man

The young Jugal saab

Day 8

Started earlier than the rest of the group, as I had to cancel my train ticket. There was some last minute work in Delhi, so I decided to skip Bikaner sightseeing. Reached Sikar railway station at 0815 hours. There was no queue and the cancellation got done in a jiffy. Google Maps took me through the bazaars of the city and got me out to the bypass. Surprisingly, it was only a two lane road. Had expected a 4 Lane one. 10 km down this road, it merged with another bypass which was a 4 lane one. And that’s where I caught up with the rest of the group.

Wheat Field

Wheat Field

Mehendale kaka started cycling from this point onward, with Imran’s truck keeping him company. As the day progressed, headwind speeds increased. The wind gods from Pakistan were doing their best to slow us down. The going was good till Laxmangarh, from where the road takes a sharp left and heads due west. Yours truly and Jugal saab took a longish 30 minut chai break at Laxmangarh. Was pleased that the chaiwala made us some Sulemani chai, the local lingo for black tea. Met with an interesting guy at the Laxmangarh chai shop. The chai bhai introduced him as a palasdhari, or a mathari (porter) as we would call him in Maharashtra. Our friend was dumb, but not in the IQ sense of the word. He had received basic education in a local madrassa. It was fun chatting up with him in sign language, with some interpretation help from chai bhai. He took us to the first floor of the Commercial Complex where chai bhai was located, to show us the Laxmangarh Fort, after which the town is named. The fort sits atop a solitary hill, whose rocks are multiple shades of brown. We had 110 km to cover and the 3 km diversion would have a huge time cost. So we skipped the trip to the fort.

None of the others, sensibly, decided to stop for the Laxmangarh chai. After the longish chai break, we were unable to catch up with most of the gang. We did catch up with Mehendale kaka two hours later. He wanted to pack up for the day but the truck was 8 km ahead. Kaka is not a believer in cellular mobile technology and depends on line of sight communication. We called up Imran and arranged for Mehendale kaka’s pick up. Though we did briefly catch up with the truck again at Fatehgarh. By then, the rest of the group was 30 minutes ahead of us. It was 1215 hours when we touched Fatehgarh. Like the previous day, we decided to do a lunch break at 1300 hrs. There was a Punjabi dhaba with an inviting lawn at a tree. As our rice and dal got prepared Jugal saan and yours truly took a pre prandial siesta on the lawn under the tree, and followed it up with the post prandial sieste on the charpoy.

Accident Warning

An interesting accident warning 

We left the dhaba at 1430 hours. Headwinds had picked up, so we did the journey in tandem mode to conserve energy. Took a short break to have a dekko at a local bawri or stepwell. Around 1500 hrs, I was reminded of the overdose of chana bathura that I had had at breakfast. So one more Sulaimani Chai pitstop happened And I also got to answer nature’s call then. Chatted up with Jagdish, the Nepali cook. His brother works with the Nepali Army. We asked Jagdish why he did not follow in Big Bro’s footsteps. He showed us his deformed elbow. He had a fall as a kid from the first floor of his house. In his mountain village, medical help was a few days away. By the time he was taken to the city, the elbow was permanently out of place. There were no problems in functionality, but try telling the army that!

Bawdi

Bawri

By the time we were out of this chai pitstop, it was 1530 hours and 48 km still to go. I realised that apart from headwinds, the winds inside the stomach had also made a significant contribution to my slowdown. The trip to the loo ended up increasing the average speed and we started doing an average of 16 km per hour from then on. There were no tractors on the road for wind cheating. Most tractors we saw were oncoming traffic from the Punjab side, overloaded with paddy stalk. We saw more than a hundred of them during the course of the day, each one occupying more than its share of the lane. All of these had a co-driver who was asleep on a blanket behind the driver’s seat. We had a small adventure when we thought we were entering a town, avoiding a flyover. Turned out to be a railway crossing. We managed to squeeze the cycles into a small opening on the wall to cross the railway tracks. From then on the road was mostly downhill to our destination, Jeet Desert Resort. We reached 40 minutes after the rest of the group.

Punjab Tractors

Punjab Tractors

Day 9

The stay at the resort was underwhelming. Having gotten used to excellent levels of service at the hotels we had been staying so far, we were surprised when we were told that we had to pay for extra blankets. The room lacked towels, soaps, even drinking water, which were supplied after repeated reminders. And in the morning we had to wake up the cook at 0730 hours for a chai and butter toast breakfast.

4 wheel drive truck

Army Disposal 4 by 4 Trucks from the seventies still in action in Bikaner

We decided to reduce our morning breaks to avoid headwinds. Our first break was at the 40 km mark, where after a long time the entire group had chai and kachoris together. Lunch was done in two subgroups. Our subgroup took our lunch break at the usual 1330 hours. Narendra and company cycled past, as they were accustomed to lunch at 1500 hrs. Fulfilled my gastronomic goal of having bajra roti. The restaurant made it in a tandoor and it was quite tasty. But it took a long time to make this non standard dish. I used the time again to fight my battles in the loos. The morning breakfast had been quite light, so I guess my gut bacteria were on strike. It takes a few days for them to return back to normalcy. One good thing about the restaurant was that it had super clean loos. It also had a swimming pool, which you could use at Rs. 150 per pax.

As we started our post lunch cycling – like clockwork, Vishwanath’s cycle again developed a puncture. Tyre hernia acting up again! One of the options was to load his cycle on the truck and ask for professional help. But by the time the truck returned from its position ahead, our cycle doctor, Bhushan Apte, had already started the hernia surgery. My cycle pump had, after one week of rough handling, gone kaput. So we had to use Bhushan’s mini pump to fill up the air.

Everyday we saw at least two cars, whose occupants dumped beer bottles out of the window. Glass bottles don’t cause too much environmental harm, but they sure are not friendly for cycle tyres. I wonder why our friends don’t like recycling beer bottles. Maybe, they don’t want their mummies to know about their drinking habits! By the way, we did not see any beer cans littering the roadside. I feel standardised packaging is the best way forward to reduce the solid waste problems that our cities face. Will blog about that separately.

Just short of Bikaner, I saw an amazing agriculture kaizen. Have seen greenhouses. Have seen plastic used to cover the soil with holes for plants to come out. But the first time that I saw 1 ft tall greenhouses with plants growing inside. A great idea for desert agriculture. Another kaizen was the roadside plantation done by the social forestry department. A moat is dug around the sapling and filled with thorny branches of the babul tree. The sapling is covered in straw. It helps in dew based watering. Could see a few leaves peeping out of the straw in one of the saplings. I pray many more would follow.

Brick Guard

Brick Tree Guard

Tree Moat

Moat Tree Guard

Greenhouse

Desert Greenhouse

 Narendra’s friends, Anil and Praveen Sukheja, had organised a grand welcome at Bikaner. Like in Jaipur, we took a break to freshen up and for me it also meant yet another trip to the loo. There was dinner with the local medical fraternity and just jas liquids and conversations started flowing, it was time for me to leave for my 2230 hours train to Delhi. Adios Amigos!