Pushkar to Osian – 250km (3 days)
The road to the edge of the Thar Desert is straight, dead straight, it stretches forward into our imaginations. The road is flat and the winter sun not so punishing, so we are able to push on until darkness falls at 5.30pm. We create a dot-to-dot across this landscape, sleeping in roadside rooms or in homestays. These small towns seldom see ‘foreigners’ other than reclining porcelain figures that speed past encased in their tourist buses. The game of leap-frog played by most visitors to Rajasthan’s must-see-spots robs them of the secret jewels of this state.
On Wednesday 9th November in the small town of Soila we awake to the news that 1,000 and 500 Rupee notes are no longer legal tender. Demonetization is an overnight strike by Narenda Modia, India’s ‘strong man’ Prime Minister, against the black money market and the corruption, drugs trade and terrorism that it funds. The money in our pocket suddenly becomes useless and I start to worry about all those innocent people, particularly the elderly suspicious of banks, the rural poor with no papers, and the women with secret savings who dream of escape, who will be affected by this sudden announcement. Later that day Donald Trump is elected President and my worry grows to encompass us all.
These modern trials are set in dusty towns where we are reminded of the constant flux of life and soothed by the immense creativity and tenacity of the human spirit. In Osian we take a room in the house of a Brahman family and, despite their worry about the political situation, their gentleness, spirituality and healthy food nourishes us (thank you Raju). We visit Jain and Hindu temples and step-wells that have been swallowed by time. We wander the evening streets and peak into the lives of others.
Osian to Phalodi – 80km (1 day)
Our cycle ride becomes a safari with sightings of Chinkara (Indian Antelope), Nilgali (Blue Bulls), camels, countless birds, and roadkill that looks tragically like wild cat. Wildlife flourishes here under the protection of the Bishnoi people. Often considered to be the first environmentalists this religious group follows a set of 29 principles (set out by Guru Jambheshwar in the 15th Century). They believe that wildlife and trees should be protected, as harming the environment means harming oneself.
As we cycle past beautiful villages with round adobe houses surrounded by living fences, I am desperate to learn more about this culture whose philosophy aligns so closely with how I see the world. But for now I pedal on to the next town Phalodi where our worthless cash means we are forced to stay in a place that accepts card. We find ourselves at the doors of the Lal Niwas, a heritage hotel in a magical haveli . For two nights we sleep in a room that fills our dreams with a golden age of desert merchants and opulence. We are surrounded by antiques and original fittings, we open shutters to secret corridors and are frustrated that the hotels museum, and all the wonders it no doubt contains, is shut for refurbishment.
By day we join the good-natured queues for cash and wonder how well the people of Europe would cope with finding on waking that all £10 and £20 notes were worthless. People are given a set number of days when they can deposit the old notes into bank accounts, but there is a limit to how much an individual can deposit. And the new 500 and 2000 rupee notes take a while to reach ATMs and there are still lengthy queues, 1 month later, to withdraw money when it is available.
Phalodia to Jaisalmer – 175km (2 days)
These Rajasthani roads are leading us to Jaisalmer a fortress city on the edge of the Thar desert near the border with Pakistan. Whilst we are not in the realm of dunes yet we are surrounded by sand. Roadkill becomes grandiose both in sight and smell and we gag as we pass a decapitated camel upon whom dogs feast. You get acquainted with the smell of death on the road. It was in these lands that India tested its first nuclear bombs: Smiling Buddha in 1974 then the Shakti tests of 1998. It is a militarized area with army barracks, personnel on the move and the dull thud of distant firing ranges provide percussion to the bird song. We once again skirt the fragile borders of this land, we seem to like the risky edges.
As we arrive in Jaisalmer the road is book-ended by the sinking sun before us and a super-moon rising behind us. The scent of the open sewers perfumes the air and the orchestra of India at dusk starts up – satsang mantras and bells from the hindu temples mixed effortlessly with the azan calling muslims to prayer, the tuk-tuk ticking over, beep-beeps, the fall of a shutter, the chatter of man and birds. I think India is the noisiest land I know but all falls silent by 10pm and the darkness is disturbed only occasionally by a dog. With dawn the fine tuning begins with the hacking up of an old man clearing his lungs.
In Jaisalmer we are back in a world of tourists but it is worth it to see the treasures of the fort, the palace, the Jain temples, and the old havelis. Amongst the traders, the tourists, the touts and the beggars this is a city that maintains its charm. It is here that I get sick for the first time, it’s remarkable that we have survived so long. For 24 hours liquids of alarming luminosity evacuate themselves from my being and I thank the many gods that I am struck down here in a comfortable guesthouse and not on the roadside.
Jaisalmer to Dhorimana- 224km (3 days)
There is always an element of foreboding when we leave the safety of a city where we’ve been settled for a while. What will the road be like, where will we sleep, will there be food and water. This insecurity is exacerbated by a growing lack of direction and purpose. India is a vast country to explore by bike and in 4 months we have only seen 2 states, time is ticking on our visas. Our minds jump from south to east, to yoga, from Gujarat to the Ganges to not-going-to-Goa, to meditation to craving lazy days on beaches where we can luxuriate in our hidden skin. We formulate grand plans and scribble down train times and the names of ashrams. All fade to nothing as we cycle onwards and fate will reward us for those hours we despair.
As dusk falls we enter a muslim town, just a collection of shops, workshops and tea stalls spread along the roadside. A friendly man Salim rushes across the street to help us, he helps us find a room for 200 rupees in a resthouse occupied by young men. It is very basic but it is safe and for dinner we eat incredibly spicy curry at a neighbouring stall. From a concrete cell-like room on the edge of the Thar desert in India I make a Whats App phone call to my dear friend Fiona in Scotland. Apart from a slight delay the line is clear and we marvel at the utter ridiculousness of such a thing.
In the morning we are are asked if the picture of the cycle tourist in the local paper is us, it isn’t but we are pleased to hear that there is another one of us out there. We haven’t seen another cycle tourist since Kaza. We are sent on our way with hot chai and smiles, once again heartened by the utterly wonderful muslim hospitality we have received all along this journey.
By day we cycle through beautiful villages and are frustrated that we invariably have to stay in guesthouses in busy towns. We have chosen this route as we have heard that there are more Bishnoi villages around Dhorimana and I want to learn more about this culture but it’s not clear how to arrange a visit. The towns are noisy, dirty places and I’m giving up hope as we prepare to set off after yet another night in a souless roadside room.. It’s then over breakfast that our luck changes when a very polite, friendly chap named Ram introduces himself. He asks me where we are from and what I do. By now I have an arsenal of professions at my disposal, some more aspirational than others – writer, anthropologist – but with Ram I give the one closest to the truth ‘ I work on community environmental projects’. ‘Oh you must come and see my village. I am Bishnoi, have you heard about the Bishnoi’.