After the ceremonial photo-ops and fanfare at Jal Mahal the expedition proceeded to the quintessential Jaipur attractions: Amber Palace and Jantar Mantar. As the evening settled in, the motley crew hustled back to the Pink City Restaurant, a hotel run by TWSR. Rajasthani folk dancers performed later, culminating the first leg of the 10 day expedition.
Early next morning we left for Bikaner, home of the famous Junagadh Fort. Several pleasant surprises came our way during the day: indicators of how the expedition would shape up ahead. Instead of the long, lonesome, often cold and impersonal highways we took the bumpy, narrow but welcoming country roads that led through dusty, unwary and unsuspecting villages. The locals in Rajasthan are a friendly lot, and we fielded their curiosity readily. The highlight of the drive came around noon, when we crossed the 2nd highest peak of the Aravalis. The loops leading to it are a strange sight in this otherwise lucid landscape. The peak is also home to a 1000 year old temple known as Harshnath. A row of windmills scattered around the top perfect the setting and add to the prominence the hill rightly deserves.
The chill of the night at Bikaner caught some of us off guard, sending us scurrying for shawls and jackets. The next morning we headed for Junagadh fort, turning over another page in the annals of history. The fort and palace are set in huge grounds overlooking the administrative area of the city. The museum inside is very comprehensive in chronicling the history of the city and its fort, and is definitely worth a dekho. Our next stop was another out of the ordinary and interesting destination: a camel breeding farm and research centre, one of the biggest of its kind in India. There we had the rare privilege of watching the likes of Mr. Bikaner, Miss Jaisalmer et al, chewing cud peacefully, satisfaction brimming large on their faces.
The following day’s drive to Jaisalmer was easily the most rewarding and riveting. Shortly after we left, we had brief photo-ops with scores of Rajasthani women clad in traditional colorful clothes putting in their hours of work for NAREGA.
Lunch time saw us arrive at Kolayat, a small bustling town in the middle of the desert. But what makes this otherwise ubiquitous town unique is a lake blooming with lotuses in the heart of the desert! One could take a shikara ride or share the religious fervor of the numerous babas/sadhus lingering around the edges of the lake. The small eatery which housed our hungry lot also surprised us with its well managed response to our unannounced visit, without compromising on the quality or the taste of its offerings. The small town of Kolayat gave us several deep and fond impressions.
Racing ahead, we caught the world famous Pushkar Camel Fair a couple of days before its culmination. The low attendance of the cattle this year caught me with surprise and disappointment. The primary reasons attributed to it were our late timing (the best cattle gets traded in the initial days) and if you would believe it, recession! The villagers complained of the low prices most of them had been offered this year being hardly enough to cover their costs of travelling back home. There was much hum-ho at the festival with many cultural, religious and tourist activities being staged at different parts of the site.
The day the group split for their respective destinations we had an informal discussion wherein all the members shared what the expedition had entailed for them. The frequent sessions of interaction as planned earlier could not happen due to paucity of time mostly. This sole session did come too late but was not too little for sure. Numbers and pleasantries were exchanged thereafter.