Saturday, November 19, 2005

The ride to Pushkar and back

October and November are great months to travel anywhere in India.The weather is cool but not cold, almost every state has its festive season during this period, and there are lots of holidays.

I had been back from Bangalore for about 10 days when I thought ofgoing to the Cattle fair held every year at Pushkar (near Ajmer) in Rajasthan during the full-moon day in Kartik (usually in November). Pushkar is around 550km from Patiala so going on the bike was the first choice. There is also a train which leaves Patiala for Merta city (around 60km from Pushkar) but I was again yearning for a long ride on the motorcycle, especially in Rajasthan.

The fair starts 4-5 days prior to the full-moon day and reaches a peak on the main day with most people starting to leave after that. The full moon day this Kartik was on 15th November, so I planned to be in Pushkar on the 12th. To take it easy, I decided to break the journey in each direction into two days and so I had to start on 11th.

On 10th evening, I filled up the petrol tank, withdrew money from the ATM, packed some t-shirts and a cargo trousers, my camera, the leatherman and a flashlight in a backpack (it felt quite light) and decided to leave the next day around 8am.

Day One

I started at 8.30am nice and easy on the way out from Patiala. Within 20 minutes I was on the highway to Samana. The road was excellent, a canal on to my right and very little traffic. I was cruising at a leisurely 80kmph.

Soon reached Samana, then went on to Patraan and then had to hunt for a while for the highway to Hissar via Tohana. The highway is actually about 20km from Patraan, starting from a town called Moonak. Well, found the highway, had a chai with some truckers who were crackling with their exploits in the brothels of Maharashtra. Wished them health and rode on.

The next stop was Hissar in Haryana. I reached Hissar around 12.30 I think. The highway to Churu (in Rajasthan) via Ramgarh lay via some crowded city roads but once I was on the highway, it was pure joy. But it was going to get better. I took out my packed lunch in Churu and rested for a while in the shade (the afternoon was blazing hot in Rajasthan in mid-November).

The road from Churu to Fatehpur was the best during this first day. Desert all around, no traffic, a meter guage rail line on my right. I was happily cruising at 100kmph and suddenly a train appeared on the tracks going in my direction. I could not resist shouting out a train whistle: Coo...ooo..ooo.

I had initially thought of Fatehpur as my night stop but I reached Fatehpur at 4 and there was still a lot of daylight left. So I went on to Sikar (50km away). I had stayed in Sikar with some friends of J Krishnamurti way back in 1996. I had some hazy idea about where the haveli was where we had all stayed but I wanted to move on closer to Pushkar. So I asked around for the best road from Sikar to Pushkar (it would go through small villages; the other route via Jaipur would be too long).

Everybody gave me different directions and I had to change track a couple of times. I continued through small villages on a narrow potholed road hoping that the road would soon improve. No such luck. The road worsened even more as it approached and left any village. I continued anyway, enjoying the scenes of the village life. I saw some marriage processions, small temples and the villagers idling away in chaupaals and in the streets.

The sun was going to set soon and I still hadn't reached anywhere. I continued along the bad road and finally reached a village (I forget its name but it began with ch) from where the road turned towards a city called Kuchaaman. The road became slighltly better but was still very narrow. The occasional oncoming vehicle blinded me and I had to turn up my visor. Then a flying insect got into my left eye and I had to stop and remove it with my bare fingers. I decided to stop soon.

I finally reached a village where I could see a few temples and I asked at one of them if they had a place for me to stay at night. But the priest was a suspicious sort and he declined. He advised me to go further to a small ashram or to continue till Kuchaaman (which he said was around 15km away). I couldn't find the ashram anyway and ended up in Kuchaaman. I looked around for a decent place to spend the night and finally settled in a hotel called the Maya Hotel. The owner easily brought down the room rate from 250 a night to 150. I put my luggage in the room and went out to look for something to eat.

Imagine my surprise when I found a shop openly selling poppy and opium. I found after some enquiry that selling such narcotics was legal in Rajasthan. I had some Kachoris and a couple of lassis. I was really tired and went to sleep early.

Day Two

I woke up at 5.30, had a cold bath and was off to Pushkar (which was now only 100km away) by 6.30. The receptionist was still asleep as I put the money in his hand.

The road now was fabulous. The sun was rising to my left, and the wide road with desert on both sides was a pleasure to ride on. I had to take a detour towards Merta City/Pushkar by leaving the main highway and on this crossing I took on a passenger. He was a priest in some small village and I'm sure he enjoyed the high speed Enfield ride to his village. He happily invited me for tea at his house and I instantly agreed, hoping to see some inner village life.

He had a small family and they were extremely friendly and welcoming. I had a very refreshing cup of tea prepared by the priest's mother. I asked him if they objected to a non-Brahmin eating in a Brahmin's home but they brushed it aside, saying that these were things of the past. They wanted me to stay for the whole day but I couldn't. I wished them well and was on my way again.

I reached Pushkar city at 10am. Called my friend Ambrish who was to join me there. He was waiting for me at the office of the Mela magistrate (who was his batchmate). I roamed around the fair till noon, and all three of us went for a free lunch (well, the mela magistrate was with us, after all) at a touristy restaurant.

Afterwards Ambrish and myself went to a luxurious tent accomodation which had been arranged by the Ajmer SDM, took an afternoon nap and were again roaming the mela in the evening. Late in the evening we went to the ghats where Ambrish started his meditation while I sat with some sadhus who were cooking their chapaatis right at the ghaat. Ambrish attracted quite a few onlookers because of his meditative stance and his occasional outburst of emotion and at one time I had to be his bodyguard. :-)

Some other friends of Ambrish soon joined us and we again went for a free dinner at an upscale hotel. The hotel owner almost bent over backwards in trying to please us. Ambrish ordered his sattvic diet prepared without onions and garlic and it came within minutes.

We all went back to the tent and had some interesting conversations about the life of an administrative officer. The others left for Ajmer to stay in the government circuit house while Ambrish and myself stayed in the tent, talking till late in the night.

Day Three

I left the tent early, roamed around the mela, went to the ghats to see the early morning bathers. Ambrish joined me later for a sampling of the mela food. He didn't eat anything because it was all spice and garlic, but I enjoyed a thick roti with some spicy dal.

It turned out that they were all leaving for Jaipur to attend a friend's wedding. Our tent had already been allocated to some other VIP, so I decided to join them to the wedding and to stay the night in Jaipur itself.

We first went to the neighboring city of Ajmer and went up a hill to a place called Taragarh. It offered superb views of the whole Ajmer. A cool wind was blowing and it was great fun. We went back to the circuit house to dress up for the wedding (I had to borrow Ambrish's clothes) and we left for Jaipur at around 5.

The road from Ajmer to Jaipur becomes a 6-lane private expressway about 70km from Ajmer. It was a great road but there was hardly any relation between the speed of the vehicle and the lane it was driving in. Ambrish was testing the car to its limits. We were five people inside a 1400cc car, speeding at 150kmph and swerving around other vehicles to maintain our speed. It wasn't too dangerous or frightening though (at least for me) and there were many other geeks going faster than us.

The wedding was in a five star palace. The food wasn't anything to write home about but the ambience was fantastic. Dimly decorated trees and lawns, outstanding lighting, and light music with a beautiful singer. I met some other colleagues of Ambrish, did some face reading for a while and all of us had dinner as soon as it was laid on the tables.

Now the challenge was who would approach the beautiful singer with a request. We couldn't think of a single Hindi song which would be appropriate for the setting and which she was likely to know. Tch Tch. Ambrish had to catch his train to Udaipur and we dropped him to the train station. On the drive back to the hotel, we finally had a consensus on the song. It was to be "Yeh Ladkaa Hai Allah Kaisa Hae Diwaana". But who was going to bell the cat? The honour fell on me.

We were afraid the music was going to end soon, so I approached her nice and polite, asked her if she knew this song. She laughed and said yes. Now we just had to wait. She sang it very well, laughing all the while and she won the heart of every young man in our group.

The mela magistrate went back to Ajmer while the rest of us went to sleep at the Officers' Training School on JLN Road in Jaipur.

Day Four

I was alone in the morning as both my friends had to leave for Delhi early. I packed my bag, exited the training school and started looking out for some public transport to take me to the bus stand. Finally an autorickshaw took mercy on me, but it had a passenger already in. I told him I had to go to the bus stand and he said "Aatth rupaye" (eight rupees). Not a bother, I thought and jumped in. Well, it was a long ride. We picked up another passenger on the way. The auto driver quoted him twenty rupees. Strange, I thought. How can the fare increase as we approach our destination? We reached the bus stand and I handed a ten rupee note to the auto wallah. He kept looking at my face. I finally asked him what did he want. He said the fare was "saatth rupaye" (sixty rupees). Hmmm... so this was the mystery of the increasing fare. I was a little crestfallen but mighty amused. I paid him sixty and boarded a bus back to Ajmer.

In Ajmer I visited Moinuddin Chishti's Dargah. It was just a Muslim version of a commercially exploitable Hindu temple. All kinds of offerings were on sale. There was a big crowd in front of the shrine door and I didn't have any inclination to go in.

I went back to Pushkar. Roamed around a lot. Met a German who was travelling in India in a non-touristy way. We went to the ghats together till the sun set, watched a circus and a magic show. We had dinner at a roof-top restaurant with a great view of the Pushkar lake. He graciously offered me to stay the night in his hotel room and I thankfully accepted.

Day Five

It was the day of heading back home. I decided to go back via a different route. It was one of the best decisions I made in this trip. I decided on the route: Pushkar -> Nagour -> Bikaner -> Suratgarh -> Bathinda -> Patiala. I had some distant cousins staying in Bikaner and I thought they would be happy to see me out of the blue.

I had breakfast in Pushkar with my German friend and rode off around 10am towards Nagour.

The ride was great. The road was excellent, the traffic well-behaved and I with my bike was one of the fastest things on the road. I reached Bikaner at 1.30pm, called up my home for directions to my cousins' place. Everybody was away to the nearby Gurudwara for it was a Gurupurb day. I too went to the Gurudwara and had a great langar.

The rest of the day was spent in getting to know my cousins and their families. I was meeting them for the first time in my life and they were very happy and warmly hospitable. We went for a wedding party at night where I tasted some traditional Rajasthani dishes. They wanted me to stay a whole week but I had to leave the next day.

I knew that the distance from Bikaner back to Patiala was huge (around 570km) to cover in a single day but I was determined. I told them that I would be leaving early in the morning in order to complete the ride in daytime and they were understood and agreed.

Day Six

I had a great breakfast and left their home at 6.45am. Ah, the road from Bikaner to Suratgarh has to be experienced to be believed. It is out of the world. Desolation on both sides, little traffic, great road surface and almost no towns on the way. The sun was rising to my right this time and the flat plains of the desert made it a sight to behold.

At around 8 I was feeling queasy due to some movement in my bowels. I didn't want to go to a toilet in a gas station for they are generally dark and damp. Well, an inspiration hit me. I remembered once we were discussing shitty things amongst family when my Mamaji told me that he had even used a round stone when no water or toilet paper was available. Well, I didn't hesitate after that.

The desert was endless on both sides of the road. I stopped my bike near a bunch of sand dunes and went behind one of them. I could see the rising sun far in front of me, with sand and desert bush all around. An occasional truck would pass my parked bike and the driver would wonder where the biker was. I'm sure some of them saw me as they approached the dunes from afar. It was an experience most pleasant. The round stone was easy to find too...

I continued at great speed towards Suratgarh. The road and the desert scenery were superb. I reached Suratgarh (160km from Bikaner), stopped for a glass of tea and then took a detour towards Hanumangarh, as I had been told by my relatives that the road from Ganganagar (further on the highway) to Bathinda (my next destination) was very bad.

From Hanumangarh I crossed the Haryana border towards Dabwali. There I had an interesting experience. I stopped for a leak at one of the truckers' stops. Some nasty looking truckers were lounging on charpais. I asked them about the shortest route to Patiala and one of them told me helpfully that I would have to go via Bathinda anyway and he didn't know of any short link route. There was a strange vibe in the air. The central character of the group looked like he could devour a cow and not belch once.

I averted their gazes as I rode off towards Bathinda. The road turned a little bad here. I didn't lessen my cruising speed though. The bike was jumping up and down but I was continuing at 90-100kmph. All of a sudden, one of my horns started tittering. I didn't know what was going on and I continued, remembering to check it once I stopped for something. Well, the tittering stopped on its own after a while but the loud volume of my bike's twin horns was now reduced drastically. What to do? I continued without stopping.

I finally stopped at Dabwali and looked under the engine (where the horns are mounted) for what was wrong. It turned out that one of the horns was missing. Hmmm... Either it was the bouncy ride which made it fall off or it was one of those nasty truckers doing a quick job while I was taking a leak.

I tried to remember if I had honked with both the horns after I had left the truck stop but couldn't arrive at a definite conclusion. It was a mystery.

(The mystery was finally resolved the next day when I took my bike for servicing. Turned out the horn hadn't fallen off due to a loosening of the nut, and it hadn't been taken off by someone; the mounting bracket had broken due to the extensive vibration and that made the horn fall off. I chided myself for suspecting the nasty but innocent truckers. On the road, the truckers are usually friendly and helpful and I was a little ashamed of myself at thinking the way I did.)

Well, I continued into Bathinda. Thought of having my packed lunch at my relatives in Mansa (70km from Bathinda). Arrived in Mansa (altogether 470km from Bikaner) at 1.30pm. Surprised everybody that I had come all the way from Bikaner on a motorcycle. Had my lunch and some rest and drove off at 2.45pm.

Reached Patiala at 4.30pm and felt like I was entering my kingdom after an AshvaMegha Yagya.

The next day, got the bike washed and oiled and ready for another long ride.

(Pictures of my trip are available here

3 comments:

VaibhaV Sharma said...

Hello,
I have been following your writings since they used to be on static HTML pages on your website. That is a long time and I dont remember exactly how long, hence that sentence. ;)

I wish to update you on a group of people that you might fit in very well with. Atleast the one passion that you seem to have of travelling on a bike is what I am talking about here. Take a look at Bullet Bangalore. The site has not been updated for a while but you should join http://groups.yahoo.com/group/bullet-bangalore.

Hope to meet you sometime in life.

ambrish said...

Hi harman
went through most of your blog. got a blog account for myself as well so that i can publish some nonsense too one of these days. your travelogues are engaging. your philosophy is not quite, since you are pretty one sided in your criticism. you are one brainy intellectual and the rest of the poor common folk, who suffer from various delusions like relationships, jobs, gurus, spirituality and the likes.. this attitude shows through quite clearly... we know each other too well for me to publically abuse you dear friend.. watch out for my blog one of these days...let's see what i can come up with.

Anonymous said...

hi good to read your experience about puskhar, even i was their in the cattle fair. i rode from delhi.

praveen aperture@rediffmail.com