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Cycling Plus

Cycling Plus #16:
Rajasthan, India, Part 2

Rajasthan, India, Part 2

After the crumpled backroads of Shekawati, National Highway 11 seemed as smooth as the marble floors of the Taj Mahal, unfolding like a long velvet ribbon towards the desert city of Bikaner.

I arrived almost as night was falling, instantly reminded of the life, noise and smells of a city once more. Buses, rickshaws, mopeds, bicycles, camels and cows all jostled for a place in the chaos of the Indian road. My room was cheap and basic, tucked into a side street and blocked from all natural light; outside a couple of kids lingered in the hope of a souvenir from England.

Bikaner is home to a fort which showcases the ornate interior design of Rajasthan's architecture and a guide talked us through life in the days of the Rajput. Faded black and white photos depicted elephant processions, polo games and portraits of immaculately clad Princes staring solemnly ahead. One room brimmed with memorabilia, including a soup spoon designed to keep the Rajah's magnificently long moustache unblemished. A source of great pride, a hair could be plucked and put down against a financial acquisition as collateral. When the money was repaid, the whisker was returned.

I rode by moonlight from Pokaran to Jodhpur with Rob, a fellow Englishman on a journey from Japan. Pokaran is infamous as the site for India's recent nuclear testing, as a young Hindi boy eager to practice his English summarised his thoughts: 'It is important to show Pakistan how strong we are!' Indeed, he and his father seemed particularly pleased that their home town had been chosen to demonstrate India's atomic prowess...We retreated to the comfort of a 'Thali.'

An expectant crowd gathered. We looked up in vain for the appearance of the full moon, in lieu of lights. In the absence of a planetary torch, our solution came in the form of a tractor. We tailgated its oversized trailer bulging with grain, which shielded us from the cold desert wind. Darkness was soon displaced by the softened rays of the rising moon; over a silvery desert floor, skeletal trees cast their own moonshadows. Rolling out our mats, we wrapped ourselves up like Egyptian mummies in sleeping bags, hats and fleeces. The silence of this open and barren landscape was a welcome respite from the cacophony of sounds that accompany each and every Indian city. Here, we slept a peaceful night under the stars, listening to the lilting newsreels of the BBC World Service...far from home.

Awaking at sunrise, a turbaned man appeared, striding in our direction, stooping now and then to collect dry wood and bundles of grass. With these he lit a small fire and as it flickered into life, bright flames were outlined against the softness of the desert in the early morning light. Our companion beckoned us over and we squatted in silence, warming ourselves in the chilly air. In reply to my offer of fruit, he pointed to first his mouth and then to the sky - it was Ramadan and he could neither eat nor drink between dawn and dusk. His small hooked nose gave him a characterful face as he peered out from the shawl tightly wrapped round his whole body. With a nod, his bandy legs straightened, arms were tucked neatly away, and he was off once more into the desert. I was touched by this simple act of kindness, putting me in an excellent mood for the long day of riding ahead...



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