Today we drive from Alsisar to Bikaner.
Sam tells us that it is 200 kilometres (125 miles) and should only take about three hours. He says we will drive to Mandawa, one of the towns we visited yesterday with the Havelis, and from there we will take a very good road direct to Bikaner.
Joginder meets us at 10 am and we settle into his bedroom. He tells us the drive will take four hours – a 25% discrepancy with Sam’s estimate, but, hey, this is Indian time. We leave the town of Alsisar and immediately turn onto a very narrow one lane road, full of potholes. It is not the road to Mandawa. We ask about that and Joginder says it is a short cut.
We foolishly assume he means a short cut to Mandawa, and although we wonder why he didn’t take it yesterday, we give it little more thought. We should have.
Periodically we come to a cross road, but there are no road signs. There are no cars, no houses, no people, nothing. At each crossroads, Joginder slows down and looks at all the roads, picks one and continues. We are beginning to get a bad feeling about this.
Finally we come across a man herding a single goat. Joginder stops and asks him for directions. The man shrugs and points in the direction we are going.
The road gets narrower and there are more potholes
After an hour we suspect Joginder is lost, and we know this can’t be the road to Mandawa as we should have been there by now. Joginder is very defensive and tells us he knows where he is going.
After two hours he is still defensive, but he is lacking the conviction he had an hour ago.
We ask Joginder to pull his bedroom over to the side of the road so we can talk. We say to him that we should have been in Mandawa a long time ago. He says that we are not going to Mandawa. We want to ask whether that is by design or whether it is because there is no way he can find Mandawa. But for once in my life I keep my mouth shut. It is obvious that we are lost and there is little that can be done about that.
Joginder explains that the short cut he is taking is a short cut to Bikaner. The gatekeeper at the hotel told him about it and said it was a great route to take tourists because it was so picturesque.
Does this look picturesque to you:
Then Joginder admits that he might have taken a wrong turning somewhere, but he is not sure where.
Gordon gets his Ipad out and clicks on his location App and miraculously it brings up a map. With no satellite connection it doesn’t pinpoint our position but with it we know a great deal more than Joginder does (Please note this is a totally unsolicited plug for the wonders of Apple and unfortunately I have received no payment for this endorsement)
The map shows huge expanses of nothing with just a few roads crossing it, but it gives the road numbers. However there is nothing at the road crossings that gives road numbers so that doesn’t help. We tell Joginder to keep driving until finally Gordon spots a small marker by the side of the road with a number on it. He finds that road number on the map, and we finally know where we are. Depressingly, but hardly surprisingly we are going in totally the wrong direction.
We tell Joginder this but he refuses to believe that we could possibly know where we are. We tell him we have a map on the computer.
“Google?” he says.
We don’t want to be pedantic over the little details, so we say yes
“Google no good here” says Joginder
He refuses to look at the computer.
Instead whenever we see a person by the side of the road he asks directions. These are very poor country people who only travel as far as they can walk, so they are of little help. Occasionally he will find someone who will point back the way we have come. Joginder then argues with them. They shrug their shoulders and Joginder continues in the direction we are going.
It is very frustrating but Gordon can see on his Ipad where we are, and while we are certainly not on the road to Bikaner, he can also see that there is no road to Bikaner in this area on the map. It is beginning to feel like cocktail time.
The countryside has turned to desert, and the road is little more than a track. Either side of the track is just sand. We rarely see another car but when we do the game of Indian Stand-off becomes much more serious. Neither car wants to get stuck in the sand and neither car wants to give way. Joginder seems to win nearly every contest, but at what price to his passengers. It is terrifying.
We pass through an occasional village. Normally we would be grateful for any signs of life, but these villages do little to quell our anxiety:
The road surface suddenly stops and we are on a sandy track across the desert. Joginder’s anxiety level finally seems to match ours. He clutches his steering wheel with his huge hands and tries to keep going. We are following a sandy track with deep ruts for our wheels and the bottom of the car keeps hitting the sandy middle of the track. It is obvious to all of us that we are very likely to get stuck if we carry on, and yet turning round in this sand is just as dangerous.
“Do you have four wheel drive” I ask, as casually as I can
Joginder seems unable to speak, gripping the steering wheel so hard that his knuckles have gone white.
He shakes his head.
We pass another village, this one far more worrying than the last:
Joginder stops and asks directions. There is not a chance these people will know where we should be going but they do say that we will get back onto a road surface in two kilometres.
It turns out to be an Indian Andrification.
We pass another village:
It is another half hour before we hit a road surface. There is jubilation in Joginder’s bedroom, perhaps not the usual jubilation, but nevertheless quite satisfying for all participants. But it is short lived, as we all experience coitus interruptus.
We are back to sand, as we pass through another village. But this time there are houses and a small school. And then finally the first true sign of civilisation we have seen for hours – a cricket match
Within minutes we are back on a road that actually feels like it should be going somewhere. Gordon locates it and we can see that within another hour we will join a road that actually goes to Bikaner.
But now we face a new problem. We have been driving for almost five hours and Joginder looks exhausted. We tell him he must stop for a break. He says that he will stop at the next roadside cafe. We haven’t seen anything that even resembles a cafe or shop for hours, but Joginder insists that a cup of Masala Tea is what he needs.
After another half hour we finally find what in this area qualifies as a truck stop. It even has comfortable beds on which you can have a rejuvanating nap:
(Joginder is 5th from the right in the picture)
Joginder is delighted. We are happy too, as we haven’t seen a restroom in over five hours.
However one step inside this one and we immediately know that the nearest bush would be preferable.
Joginder invites us to join him for tea and a snack, but we would have to be a lot hungrier than we are, to eat anything here. Besides, we are already the centre of attraction with the other clientele. It is obvious that they are not accustomed to seeing white folk, and they stare at us in a way that suggests we would not be particularly welcome to join them on their beds.
It is another 90 minutes before we get to Bikaner. A three to four hour journey has taken over seven hours, and it seemed like a lifetime. Bikaner is a large industral city in the desert with not a lot going for it, but we have never been happier to be anywhere.
Happiness turns to delight as we approach our hotel:
The Laxmi Niwas Palace was the Marajah of Bikaner’s palace. Half of it is still his palace (the family lives in the back with the help), but the front half has been turned into a hotel.
The present Maharajah’s grandfather served high up in the British army and the walls are lined with photographs of him with the war cabinets, signing the Treaty of Versailles, and receiving or hunting with prime ministers, presidents and British Royals from George V through to Lord and Lady Mountbatten.
We walk through the lobby and enter the central courtyard. Suddenly the long forgotten Fabulosity Meter leaps from the dark place where it has been and rings loudly:
The Fabulosity meter is still ringing loudly when I see our room:
I think back to the last few hours and the sad tent villages we passed, and a sense of guilt clouds my consciousness. But fortunately it is just a momentary lapse and does nothing to stop me from going back down to the courtyard and settling in to cocktails and dinner.
Dinner comes with a cultural show. Cultural shows are something we normally avoid, but this is the exception. A three piece band and vocalist support an amazing local dancer
We have two days in Bikaner and this is just a taste of what is to come