I’d grown so comfortable biting off a little more than I could comfortably chew since being in India. In fact, I’d learned to give up on chewing altogether – swallowing up arduous riding, night or day, like an adventure hungry python.
Which was just as well – my impulsive decision to ride to Udaipur through desert wastelands would have me arriving well after midnight…
When the last of the daylight retreated over the horizon, my bike and I huddled alone in the devouring darkness of the rural roads which webbed highways together. My useless headlight illuminated just a small patch of hard-shoulder, meaning each right corner was approached with unhappy ignorance – usually accompanying an exhilarating slide through concealed dust drifts. Somehow I managed to keep the bike upright for another four hours of skidding through sand banks, the highway dazzle of oncoming cars and shotguns of bugs. Upright – though my eyes were bludgeoned and bloodied.
I woke the night staff at the hostel and checked off the usual immigration requirements (you know, visa dates, shoe size, favourite farm animal. That kind of stuff.) and relinquished the pen back into it’s tin can home with a rattling flourish. Tah Da.
In the depths of the hostel common room someone murmured a name. My name.
Standing behind me was a bewildered Adrian, who’d left for the high Himalayas at the same time I was returning to riding after my crash. My route had been fortuitously free from bad omen or injury however Adrain, along with his partner Inneke, wiped out into a car that pulled a maneuver foolish even for Indian driving standards. Inneke was only released from hospital fairly recently following a broken hip and other assorted injuries, Adrian had escaped scot-free and was out exploring Rajasthan solo.
I was bewildered too. It was common to run into the same people over a few weeks, but experience had shown me not many travellers remained in India for longer than six months, so the likelihood of meeting again, especially coincidentally, was pretty slim.
We delayed reunion beers for a day later, conscious that my big red eyes made it look like I was already half-cut. Instead, I juggled my bones into the high bunk beds of the dorm and curled up to recharge the batteries for a day exploring the city tomorrow.
Udaipur is one of the less touristic gems of India. Two parts narrow, cramped streets and two parts expansive lakes, open courtyards and rolling hills it’s a vibrant cocktail without being chaotic. The royal palace (though obviously one of the tourist hot-spots) turned out to be an impressive wonderland of themed rooms, mirrored mosaic peacocks, stained glass and tiny corridors. The scope and imagination of the palace design held me rapt and wandering all morning before a quick ride to the Monsoon palace, proud and gleaming, toothlike on a gummy mountain top.
Mobs of monkeys sunbathed and knitpicked along the narrow track which spiralled along to the white fortress. Summit gusts kept the fortress cool in the charring heat which burned the grass short in the valleys. I teamed up with Greg, a despondent Australian lad, to amble around the complex, refreshed by his dislike of India so far. In a world where travel is glamourised beyond recognition, edited and cut into instagramable fragments, most backpackers had been quick to tell me how they adored India and its blah blah blah. But in truth India can be very difficult to get along with – and plastering fake smiles and recycled lonely planet rhetoric over everything only shallows your experience. The blind, cult-like spirituality that tourists long to find in India is no more healthy than total spiritual barrenness. There’s a balance for everything.
I belly laughed as Greg took India to the cleaners with a typical Aussie brusqueness, and wished him luck with the rest of his holiday.
After another accidentally heavy (boozy) night Adrian and I set off on different tracks, but planned to reunite for Holi in Pushkar – which was quickly emerging as the destination for a raucious festival of colour.
For now, I took the small roads and a detour to Kumbhalgarh fort, a gargantuan hilltop compound secured behind a twenty two mile long, fifteen foot thick wall. Whole he view from the top was reasonably spectacular, the highlight had to be the young Indian child who followed me around for ten minutes calling me Superman. Oh, stop it.
Nigh abandoned rural roads had me pinning the throttle on the final leg to Jodhpur. I was banking heavily, set to cork pop through a tight corner nestled between a dry stone wall and a small, white house when, already committed, an old woman threw a bucket of water into the kink. I’d had plenty of practice grabbing the bike between my legs and wrestling away a low slide, but this time cut it close… mere millimeters from the stone wall as both wheels slipped sideways and the engine screamed its lack of traction. A fraction later, all friction all at once, I’m stamping away the inevitable high-side jerkiness and rolling serenely over a gentle crest under an indulgently golden sunshine glow that hadn’t been there two seconds before.
I knew what was coming and smacked my lips like a junkie, absent grin peeling across my face. The adrenal thump landed in my chest and rippled ecstatically outward. A few weeks before, near the southern tip of India, I’d missed a bolting cow by a hairs breadth and managed to eek out the same warmth. Worryingly enough for an adventure biker, I was also an adrenaline junkie, so it seemed. But not all hits are the same – the best buzz needs the split second dangers followed by a comfortable diminuendo. If danger continues I would drift straight into a bullet hard pragmatism and miss the peak. Good Lord, I was becoming a I was becoming a connoisseur of the high. Save it for the track Tom, I reminded myself. India might kill you otherwise.
I reached Jodhpur early afternoon, checked into checked a hostel on the outskirts of the ‘Instagram fabulous’ ancient blue city and went for a walk. My bike-cough, picked up from the cold nights, slightly rattled the cool tranquility of the pastel blue corridors but, after watching the sun set from a ridge next to the fort, the tickly throat was absorbed into the hubub of the city streets below.
I left early the next morning, evading the wild camels that thronged the road in lazy caravans, riding through the sickly heat of the desert and into Jaislamer. I hadn’t been in the city for longer than ten minutes when a scooter pulls up with the rider inviting me to ride with him to the old quarter. I accept, but start building an imaginary friend that I’ll have to meet soon, a get out of jail free card. This guy was little Jonny, entrepreneur, business owner and mad man gunning his way through the tiny sandstone alleyways of the old fortress, narrowly evading high stacks of tourist goods and paraphernalia.
Also he’s a total bastard, for reasons yet to cover…
Little Jonny predictably took me to his gueshouse where I took the proffered coffee and ordered some food. Meanwhile Jonny got to work, working me over. You see, like everyone else in Jaislamer, Jonny could hook me up to the best camel safari in town. Right into the deepest desert, where no other tourists can get to. The most authentic thing since Bollywood. Better value than a KFC mega-bucket. The list of claims went on and on, but each time my question, a reasonably valid one, was ignored and he’d continue talking in his overtly gregarious, very bizarre mix of Australian, British, Indian and glamorous drag queen accents.
“Yeah, but how much is it?”
Little Jonny stared back and tried to look offended.
“You see,” he started, winding himself up for the performance, “what other companies offer is like tin. You can go to the market for jewellery and buy something tin, but you won’t be happy with it, so it’s really a waste of money. I want you to be happy. This is an experience of a lifetime. So I don’t offer tin. I offer silver. The best packages you could ever hope to get. But obviously it’ll cost a little more.”
I expected this, and thankfully had done my homework. “How much is a little more?”
“Five thousand rupees.” I made a point of letting some of my coffee escape back into the mug. “Per day”.
Now I just laughed at him. He’d taken me to a wonderful rooftop to enjoy a coffee, but this was very thinly veiled extortion. The major operators would run a tour for two thousand all inclusive over two days, sleeping in the desert. His price was over a hundred pounds more expensive, for a level of exclusivity I neither wanted nor expected he could actually deliver.
Still, persistent as always, Jonny kept the sale alive by bringing out books full of positive reviews about his tours which, funnily enough for someone who could speak such usefully entrapping English, couldn’t read himself. So the books were garbage, full of his own reviews. I obliged him by reading out a few as he continued to chip away at my foundations. I’ll even admit I was vaguely contemplating his rip-off deal when he bought out one more book to seal the deal.
Unfortunately for Jonny, this final book written by travellers had the word ‘SCAM’ scrawled across the bottom in big black sharpie. Maybe he couldn’t actually read English?
He disappeared for a while, during which I googled ‘Little Jonny, Jaislamer’ and found quite a few posts pertaining to his scamming ways. I paid up and left to find a tour and somewhere to stay for the night.
Under the flickering halogen glow of a sleepy 4:30am Jaislaimer I piled into a jeep alongside two other diffident white people and sat in stunned morning quiet for an hours drive and gentle decanting into the middle of the desert. Light had just started cresting over the horizon, diluting the black ink sky to blue, when a poster-perfect cliche of three lumbering silhouettes were led into view. We sat with our guide around the fire, eating toast and watching the sun emerge over the desert, peaceful and contented – if a little stodgy from the two entire loaves of bread we were too polite to turn down.
Our camels hoisted us into the air, short of elegance, and began another march into the dunes. My hips rocked hard with their lurching gait as our steeds hoofed past an unfathomably endless sea of wind turbines. They ruined the desert adventure vibe a little, but you can’t ignore the scale at which India is growing their forests of windmills, new saplings sprouting up daily. We got to see a glorious sunrise, but the trade off was a four hour lunch break while we waited for the afternoon additions to arrive, reading books and playing with timid wild puppies.
Our numbers bolstered, we flinged small talk across the camel gaps until we arrived at our campsite in the early evening, gathered on the side of a dune to chat and eat. The blood red setting sun swallowed half the desert, then was gone. I cracked out my emergency whiskey and eased myself into a night under the stars.
The whole camel safari had been great, but I was glad I hadn’t paid eleven thousand rupees for it. When our jeep arrived back in Jaislamer I showered, dressed and swapped camel for iron horse.
There was only one overnight left, to visit the rat temple in Bikaner, before what would become an incredibly messy reunion with Adrian et Al in Pokhara.
The legendary color festival was just around the corner.