Desert Safari

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The Humsafar express is a new train by the Indian Railways, a fully AC train, with newer coaches and a premium flexi-pricing. There are no ticket concessions available on this train. Flexi-pricing has led to an increase in revenue, but a fall in occupancy. Would be an interesting study for an economics student – studying the price elasticity of demand in the Indian Railways. Interestingly, the train was on time at all the stations it touched. Punctuality, I guess, is inversely proportional to the number of stops.

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We reached Udaipur at 0500 hrs. Narendra’s dermatologist friend, Dr Prashant Agarwal, was our host there. He runs Dermadent hospital in Udaipur: wrong business – should have been in hospitality! From the time we landed to the time we left, there was a dedicated bus from Eklingi transport for our use. (Eklingi is the ruling deity of Mewar). Our cycles had arrived 24 hours earlier – and had been picked up by Dr Agarwal and kept at the hospital. A cycle doctor was made available for taking care of any transport damages. And to top it all off, Dr Agarwal actually cycled the first 30 km with us, his longest ride till date!

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I used the visit to catch up with my friend Vishy, who is faculty at IIM Udaipur. Cycled down to the campus, which is about 3 km before the Udaipur bypass, in the Ahmedabad direction. The campus is in the Aravalli hills and hence has a very interesting architecture. In the academic block, you enter the building from the sixth floor and go down to Vishy’s office on the third floor – or the Teesri Manzil, as he calls it. Construction work was on in full swing, when I visited. The architect is Balkrishna Doshi – of IIM Ahmedabad fame. They have done a good job, giving the campus the feel of a Rajasthani fortress town, with buildings clustered close to each other. The local influence is visible, in terms of the stone used. The sole sore thumb being the library glass facade. 

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After having spent the first day lazing around Gulab Bagh where our hotel was, we started cycling around 0830 hrs. Along with Dr Agarwal, we also had for company, 10 members of the Udaipur cycling club. All of them were road bikers, so we only ended up seeing their blinking tail lamps. Some temple tourism happened along the way. Nathdwara’s claim to fame is that it is a favorite temple for the Ambani family. The hotel where we had had our brunch served us the Nathdwara Parshad. What is interesting about the temple is the limited viewing hours of the deity. This lead to very interesting human flow in front of the idol. The guiding belief: the longer you stay in front of the idol, the more blessed you are!

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Rolling terrains end up reducing the average speed. Add headwinds to this and the speed diminishes further. We ended day 1 with an average speed only 15 kmph. This low speed dissuaded us from making a diversion to the very interestingly named Saas Bahu ka mandir in Nagda. Wikipedia informs me that the name is a local corruption of the original Sahasra-Bahu, meaning “One with thousand arms”. More modern relics that we passed included places like Dhabology, whose interesting feature was an old Tata Mercedes Benz truck as part of the restaurant decor. Another interesting highway tidbit was passing a public toilet, where the female toilet had a Mona Lisa, suitably attired in a Rajasthani choli!

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The road from Nathdwara to Rajsamand is dominated by Marble. The quarries are located in a vicinity of 15 to 20 km. And local entrepreneurs have their godowns / workshops / showrooms lining the highway. We saw enough marble to build a few Tajs! The stone is cut into cubical blocks and got down to the processing units on the highway, where is it sawed into slabs, 15 to 20 mm thick. The bigger the size of the slab, the higher the rate. Band saws are preferred as the blocks are almost 1 m in side. I did see some circular saws being used for smaller blocks. Thanks to all the mining and sawing, the air has a lot of particulate matter, it ended up aggravating a dormant cold in me..

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Day 1 being only a 60 km ride, we found time to do some tourism in the evening. We got into the Tata 407, our support vehicle, and drove down to Rajsamand lake. My guess was that the perimeter would be about 50 km. My friend, Wikipedia, informs me it is close to 18 km (3 km wide and 6 km long, average depth of 18 m) Most lakes in Rajasthan are man-made, or more appropriately king-made. The Rajsamand dam was constructed in 1650 by Raj Singh. Fun fact about Raj Singh was that he had 18 wives. Here is a Wikipedia quote about the lake:

On the embankment of the lake are nine pavilions or ‘nauchowki’ (nine ghats), which were constructed by Maharana Raj Singh. These beautifully carved pavilions are festooned with pictures of the sun, chariots, gods, and birds. The history of Mewar is inscribed in 1017 stanzas, on 27 marble slabs, that are called the Raj Prasasti. Rajsamand Lake was the seaplane base of Imperial Airways during World War II, for over six years.

Raj was a contemporary of Shivaji, Gobind Singh and Chhatrasal of Bundelkhand. Incidentally, these guys fought a joint campaign to liberate Jodhpur from the Mughals. Fun fact about Chhatrasal, his only kid was Mastani, of Bajirao fame. There was a ticket-seller-cum-guide at the museum who regaled us with quaint tales of Mughal atrocities.

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The next day was Rajsamand to Pali, 125 km. I have given up on tea drinking, but a lack of choices for our starter breakfasts got me back into tea drinking mode. What also helped was the 10 C morning temperature, where warm drinks are appreciated. Having breakfast after a couple of hours of morning cycling is a good idea. One, energy levels are high in the mornings. Two, headwinds build up only as the day warms. Breakfast on day 2 was at Gomti Mor, where the road to Pali diverts. En route, we met a few truck drivers who advised us to cycle via Kumbalgarh to avoid the steep ghat that is there on the Pali road. On finding out that steep ghats, especially downhill ones, don’t worry Pune cyclists too much, the truck driver’s parting advice was – Bhai, drive your cycle down in the first gear!

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We did our usual temple run of the day, diverting a few km to visit the Charbhuja Temple. The average Rajasthan villager, unlike his brethren from other states, is well travelled. Met with two Marathi speakers in this village. After having a milk-cake parshad at the temple, we cycled down the ghat, in the first gear! We did not manage to see too much of wildlife in the jungles in the ghat, but Pandit ji, our Tata 407 driver, assured us that he had seen a lion on the ghat a few years ago.

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We had an interesting dermatological message on our T shirts. Fungal pe Dangal. Which was basically to promote preventive measures for fungal infections: Wear loose clothes; ensure that they are not wet. One of the motorcyclists on the way got chatting after reading the T shirt message. Was a supari guy – the Rajasthani not the Mumbai variety! Learnt some rural marketing from him. What sells well in villages in Rajasthan are the Rs.10 packs. Apart from supari, he sells a host of stuff in 10 Rs. packs. Enthused by his enthusiasm, I purchased 10 pack of 10 Rs cloves from him. Over chai, we chatted about Pali, the town where we had our next stop. Pali is India’s blouse and petticoat capital. Local units source raw cloth from Bhiwandi and work on the dyeing and finishing. Because of the deeply chemical nature of work, water pollution levels are high. Most of the units are facing the flak from the National Green Tribunal because of this.

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Had been finding more cows on the roads than dogs. Asked my supari friend about the abundance of stray cattle on Rajasthan roads. The first point he made is that they are not stray. They all come home in the evening! In the pre BJP days, most of these cattle would end up on the dining tables of Bangladesh. With the new Government policy, most of them now end up on the roads. I could not sense too much of hostility in the local population to these strays. They seemed to grin and accept them, and of course fence in their fields.

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We cycled down to Pali District club to a grand reception committee. We were greeted with fragrant rose garlands and an even more fragrant Gajar Halwa. After hogging our hearts out, we were dismayed to find out that there was an even more elaborate sit down dinner, hosted by Nandu Bhatewara’s relatives. In Rajasthan, the purdah culture may have gone, but there is still seating segregation. Ended up sitting with the 4 female members of our group who were busy chatting up with the female members of Nandu’s relative group. One of them was a Company Secretary, who in spite of her qualification was not working. But was informed that Marwari girls are taking their baby steps into business. The beginning has been made with boutiques and artisan cakes, and I see hopes for a more gender inclusive Marwari business in future.

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We started next morning from Pali, accompanied by a motley group of Pali cyclists, thankfully not on road bikes! We did our usual temple run in the morning, visiting the famous Somnath mandir. It is an ancient temple, albeit a ‘living’ one. Was intrigued by the glass windows lining the verandah to the sanctorum. Later on realised that this was because of the air conditioning. Was tempted by the ‘Dal Pakwaan’ on the streets near the temple, but being the only hungry soul in the group, had to grudgingly soldier on. In hindsight, stopping for breakfast would have been a good idea, because we eventually had breakfast around 1100 hrs, again courtesy Nandu’s relatives. The venue was a Honda scooter showroom at Rohta, which was owned by his relatives. Marwari hospitality was again on full display in the 5 course breakfast: Crisp Kachoris, Poha, Jalebi, and Dates. There was a marked reduction in speed post breakfast, and not so much because of the headwinds! After doing some flamingo and Nilgai sighting en route, we landed up at yet another reception committee in Jodhpur, this time courtesy Narendra’s dermatology friends at the Govt Medical college, this time with Phetas and rose garlands.

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Dinner was with the dermatology team from Jodhpur. Was seated next to a doctor from AIIMS, Jodhpur. Like the IITs and IIMs, the government has set up an AIIMS in every state. And like the IITs and IIMs they have been told that they need to be self reliant for operational expenditure. So at AIIMS Jodhpur there is a nominal charge for all services and medicines are not free. Like PGI Chandigarh, it is being recognized by locals as a go-to place when local docs give up. Infrastructure and machines are world class at AIIMS. We had a small chat about  lasers used in skin treatment. I asked about any studies that look at correlation between cancers and lasers. My AIIMS doc friend didn’t know of any.

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We stayed the night at the upmarket Umed Club in Jodhpur, thanks again to Nandu’s contacts. Flag off was from the medical college. The kaizen of the day was to have a first round breakfast of fruits. This ensured a good pedalling rate. Followed by a sumptuous poha-paratha breakfast an hour later. I stopped on the way at a Government school in Khari Beri village. Chatted with the Headmaster, who invited me to address his 500 students. Tried to get the students to interact, but most preferred using their ears to their mouths. Gave them a few tips on improving their English – and moved on.

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The evening stop that day was at Pokharan. The distance between Pokharan and Jodhpur is 170 km, which was a tad too much, give that the median age of the group was 60+. So we halted midway at Balasar and loaded the cycles into the support vehicle. Most of the group then boarded a long distance sleeper bus to carry on to Pokharan. Yours truly and Vishwanath continued the journey in the truck. We were regaled by a lot of mythological stories by Panditji. One of the interesting anecdotes he shared was that of Rahu and Ketu. It seems that these two guys were actually a single one. They fraudulently obtained Amrit (the nectar of immortal life) and hence became immortal. Vishnu was told about this fraud, and using the Sudarshan Chakra, our friend beheaded Rahuketu. But since the guy had already had his Amrit, the head and the body continue their separate existence. On the subject of immortality, Pandit ji mentioned that there are also some Rishis who have tasted Amrit. These rishis make it to the Kumbh every 12 years. Since it is difficult to identify these Rishis, there is an interesting exercise that is done at every Kumbh. The loin cloths (langots) of all the sadhus are lit up in a bonfire. There are always a dozen loincloths that survive this burning. These are taken to be the Rishis and are taken away by the Akharas and worshipped till the next Kumbh.

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We saw some interesting paramotoring going on en-route. Basically a big tricycle with a sail and a motorcycle engine. There was one casualty on the way though. As I jumped down the truck at the lunch stop, my phone jumped out of my pocket and landed on some gravel. The result was a cracked screen. I had vowed not to change my obsolete phone till I lost it or broke it. Perhaps all the temple runs that I did on the way had an effect – and my prayer for a new phone got answered!

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Jugaad: Charpoy made of used Belting

The truck had been fitted with a speed governor, and so we did not exceed 60 kmph at any time. So we reached a nice 2 hours after the rest of the gang. After unloading the cycles and having the end of the day bathing ritual, went out for a solo walk in the town. Pokharan’s economy is driven by the Army. Got this bizarre idea to visit the nuclear detonation site, but army guys don’t seem to be too keen about nuclear tourism. So decided to get some second hand experience. Unless you actually talk to people, you don’t get to know the culture. Commerce is a good ice breaker for the tourist. Visited a local one man dhaba and chatted up with the owner over dinner. His village is about 8 km from the test site. I asked him about the medical fallouts of the test. Side effects were some Itches. Maybe a higher incidence of cancer. But the Government took care. There was also some compensation in a few cases.

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I asked the dhaba owner what souvenir can I take back from Pokhran? Every town is exceedingly proud of some local sweet. In Pokharan it is the cham cham. In Jaisalmer it is the Ghotmar, a kind of ladoo, made by the Bhatia Mithai wala in the fort. I walked down to the Hastimal Mithai shop near Pokharan railway station. It is a small station, which has been put up for the army. It is not on the main Jodhpur Jaisalmer line, so only 5 trains chug in every day into the station. (The closest mainline station is Ramdeoria, which was the hometown of Ramdev Baba, the Sai baba equivalent of Rajasthan.) Again had the post-purchase gossip session with the owner. He informed me that Abdul Kalam had stayed for a few months in Pokhran during the buildup to the nuclear test. He used to stay at Hotel Monika, and the local population was made to believe that he was just another thekedar (contractor) of the army. Abdul bhai liked roaming around town in the the evenings, shabnam on shoulder. The railway station was one of his favourite haunts.

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If you are wondering which shop has shifted, you must be in low spirits! This is courtesy the Supreme Court ruling banning Liquor shops within 200 m of highways

Wondered about the skewed gender ratio in Rajasthan when I found out about the bachelor status of the mithai shop owner. Only 2 of the 4 middle aged brothers in the shop owner’s family are married. The owner was a gau bhakt, who donates regularly to gau shaalas. He acknowledged the stray cattle problem whose genesis is when the cows stop producing milk. He wanted a solution from the government, because the gwaalas cannot afford to keep old cattle.

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Next day morning started with our usual bread breakfast in a restaurant close to our hotel. Sometimes I feel that we could plan our starter breakfasts in the previous evening itself. Maybe proactively purchase some fruit and make some sandwiches. Pokharan was literally the coolest place in the morning. Temperature had dipped to sub 5, and for the first time I had double sweaters on, though still continued to use my trademarked shorts. Thanks to the absence of breeze, we got a good average speed of 20 kmph for the first 2 hours. Then was our breakfast pit-stop at the very interestingly named town of Lathi.

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Next stop was the army museum at Jaisalmer. Read about the very interesting story of the battle of Longewala at the museum. If Pokharan had inspired John Abraham to make ‘Parmanu’, Longewala had done the same for the JP Dutta’s ‘Border.’ Wikipedia has a very balanced reportage about Longewala. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Longewala) The 1974 Illustrated Weekly article featured in the museum has a very interesting canine angle to the battle, which is not covered by Wikipedia. The Pak army plan was to launch a surprise night attack and capture Ramgarh and Jaisalmer. Their intelligence had not accounted for the BSF post at Longewala, which had been taken over by the army. Though heavily outnumbered, the Indian army managed to hold on, partly due to the sagacity of its own men and the errors committed by the Pak army. The Longewala post was actually on a sand dune, and this neighbourhood bogged down a lot of the tanks and armoured personnel carriers, who were then sitting ducks for the lone anti tank gun that the post had. After the Indian anti-tank ammo got over, the Pak army could have easily taken over the post, but were dissuaded because of the barbed wire near the post. And that is where the canine angle comes in. The barbed wire had been put up by the Indian army folks merely to prevent dogs from wandering in. The Paks assumed that it was because the area was mine-fielded. The Pak sappers waited till dawn to realise the absence of mines. But by then the IAF, who did not have any night vision facility at that time, was in action. Lacking support from the PAF, the Pak army lost 200 soldiers, 36 tanks and 500 vehicles.

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We cycled down to end our rally at Jaisalmer fort. Ending with yet another reception, courtesy Narendra and Jaisalmer’s sole dermatologist. There is no direct train from Jaisalmer to Pune, so we had decided to truck the cycles to Jodhpur, from where there are direct trains to Pune. We loaded the cycles in the evening itself, so that Pandit ji and his Tata 407 could start early morning for Jodhpur.

25 IMG_20190109_082251525A lesson in ergonomics : The average height of the Rajasthan auto driver needs modifications to the auto design.

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The single road state highway metamorphoses into two lanes whenever it enters a vilage

Jaisalmer is the most ‘touristy’ town of Rajasthan. This is where the ‘real’’ desert is. Tourists outnumber locals. The center of the town is the fort on Trikuta (Triangular) hill. As the name indicates it is a fort (mer) built by a Bhati tribal chief, Jaisal. The fort came up in 1156, and is one of the rare forts that continues to be occupied since then, a ‘living’ fort. In recent memory it has become the Sonar Kella, thanks to the eponymous novel by Satyajeet Ray. Even today, Bengalis form the highest proportion of domestic tourists in Jaisalmer.

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The Hawa Pol

Our first day started with a fort visit. Mr Panchal was our multi-lingual guide. He spoke passable Marathi and fluent Bangla. We met him at the gate of the fort. One interesting fort door demonstrated why we faced headwinds as we travelled from Udaipur to Jaisalmer. At the Hawa Pol, which has a North South orientation, you can feel a venturi breeze anytime of the year. Mr Panchal went on to give us a tutorial on ancient construction techniques. The fort is made using sandstone blocks without any cementing. The reason could be lack of technology at that time, but possibly it is more to do with lack of water. The stones are interlocking, with male and female joints.

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Jaisalmer lives up to its name of Golden city, because every house that we saw there used sandstone. And was not painted. Almost all houses in the fort had facades of carved sandstone. So did Golden House, the hotel that we stayed in. (Btw, the hotel has managed to get an ethnic look quite well. Seems to be popular with Pune tour operators. Would recommend it strongly.) Sandstone is soft and so quite amenable to carving. The town of Badami in Karanataka was famous for its sandstone and its temple builder training school. The most intricate carving was on the house of Nathmal, the PM of the king. The biggest haveli was that of a nagar Seth, Patwa. 5 wings for 5 brothers. Took 60 years to make. And 150 Rupees to enter. So skipped. The Seth made his money because Jaisalmer was an important stop on the Silk road. Later on as ports developed and trade shifted, so did the family. Incidentally, even the king has shifted out. He stays in a bigger mahal, thanks to a push from wifey, a Nepal royal, who wanted her car to drop her off to the doorstep. Not possible on the cramped roads of the fort. Btw, the queens are the real builders of a mahal.. Specs are decided by them. The more the queens, the bigger the mahal.

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The last part of our guided tour in the fort was dedicated to commerce. All of us were stoned by the time we left. Well with different types of stone. There were the Habur Fossil stones formed 180 million years ago. Some pseudo scientists have found traces of lactobacillus in them; so ostensibly you can make curds by just putting warm milk in containers made of Habur stone. Am a bit worried about the non scientific use of such interesting fossil stone – but the problem seems to be with the quantity in which it is available. There is so much that the Archaeological Survey of India has decided it is not worth preserving! The stuff that is genuinely more useful in curd production is sandstone and yellow marble, as both absorb water, thickening the curd.

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The last night stay was in a tent camp in Sam, next to a dune. Discussed hotel economics with the owner, a Bihari who had studied in Pune. The camp operates from Sep to Mar. Peak tariff from Dec 22 to 5 Jan. Here is the cost structure:

25 rooms, built at 2 lakh per room. Total capex of 70 lakh.

13 staff from local villages.

Water bill comes to a lakh a month.

A band of musicians and dancers who come from Kanoi village. They charge 80 K per month, making a little more thanks to tips received from the audience.

A 2 acre plot, leased at a lakh a year.

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Suggested water recycling and conservation measures. As of now, the only touristy things to do in the desert camp is dune bashing in jeeps and camel rides. Suggested to our friend to organize desert treks to make tourists stay longer. Most stay only one night. Another interesting idea is to have tractor rides in the sand dunes. We found a very adventurous Ford endeavor driver from Delhi, who had managed to get his new gaadi stuck in the sand. We stayed back to watch his vehicle get rescued by a tractor.

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Jugaad: Buckets from recycled truck tyre tubes

Woke up on the last morning at 0630 hrs to sounds of thunder. Told myself it’s the tent flapping in the wind. But when the pitter patter started, had to rush out to greet the rain. The dune sands were transformed to river sand. Found a 4 day lamb lost in the dunes. It walked up to us. We carried it to the shepherds. Was a nice sight to see it meeting mom. First thing the lamb wanted from mom was breakfast, which was promptly served.

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The wisdom of Rajasthan resides here!

After our own leisurely breakfast we drove back to Jaisalmer city and lazed around for some time before we caught the evening train to Bandra terminus. From there on our friend Vishwanath Gokhale had arranged a Tempo Traveller to drop us back to Pune. Our cycles arrived a day later from Jodhpur coming in via a detour to Miraj, as the cycles could not be unloaded in the 3 minute halt that the train had in Pune.

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Gujju jugaad: the idlis are not steaming. There is incense inside!

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A good name to have for any business!