This was an organised tour with Art of Bicycle Tours , an Indian company and really came about after watching Joanna Lumley on T V dramatically flinging her arms wide and saying, “ Rajasthan, you must come here . “ I couldn’t resist such an offer. So I blame everything on her.
The tour started in Udaipur and I had to change flights in Delhi to get there. I met Hannah, a 38 year old flame haired Czech lady who said she wasn’t stalking me but every time I turned around in a queue at the check in desk or getting something to eat she was standing behind me. I should be so lucky. She lives in Delhi, works in intellectual property for an Indian company and has to renew her work permit each year. She says she’s not part of the expatriate community as they drink too much.
The first day’s ride was a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds, riding in Udaipur town was hectic, everybody hooting non-stop, crazy tuk tuks , scooters mixed up with buses, cows , dogs , children walking down the narrow alleys. The rule of the road is that there is no rule. Somehow we got out of town and rode around one of the three lakes with a palace built on an island in the centre of the lake and forts and palaces built on the tops of the hills. We came across a noisy wedding in the road with beautifully dressed people, an elephant and the groom mounted on a white charger.. Temperatures and landscape are similar to a Natal winter , chilly in the evening and morning and mild sunshine during the day; excellent for riding. We had a tour around the Town Palace, a large complex owned by the Maharajah. It has splendid balconies, towers and cupolas and has wonderful views over the lake.
Our second ride from Udaipur took us out into the countryside on a circular route through villages in dry barren countryside with more mountain top palaces and forts and had lunch in a lakeside restaurant overlooking the city palace and the palace in the centre of the lake From the bicycle shop to the hotel we took the first of a number of crazy tuk tuk rides jammed in the back, feeling every bump and speed hump and filming the traffic behind us including two girls on a scooter filming us whilst we filmed them. In the evening we watched the sunset and had a meal on a rooftop restaurant overlooking the lake.
My travelling companions were a likeminded collection of good riders and are all well-travelled consisting of a German retired doctor father and daughter, a Canadian retired couple, a French lady and her English husband living in Twickenham , three humorous 70 +single Yorkshire men and myself from South Africa. I became an honorary Yorkshire man, a great honour particularly as I come from over the Pennines. We bunked up, taking it in turns, the only trouble being the snoring. To do this tour you don’t need to be a speedy or long distance rider as we did between 30-50 kilometres per day with one day of 70 kilometres and there were no fierce hills but you need to be reasonably fit and have competent cycle skills to handle the terrain and the other local road users. The bikes were fine but I had 5 punctures so I think they need to pay some attention to the tyre quality.
We then rode to Kumbhalgarh . This was quite a tough ride with undulating hills. The sights you see are people in fields, women wearing brightly coloured saris, dry scrubby land; onward through villages, some very dilapidated, the poverty contrasting with the affluence that you see in towns. Cycling is the best way to see the country; people, particularly children, greet you with big smiles and hellos. In the afternoon we went to Kumblelgarh fort set on top of a hill with huge thick walls and temples inside.
I awoke with eyes like piss holes in the snow and swollen ankles but the swelling reduced during the day. I suffered from this throughout the tour, as I have done in the past and it’s clearly caused by water retention. We rode quietly before plunging down a long switchback hill through unspoilt country to the valley below. We visited Ranakpur Jain Temple, a marble building with wonderful carvings. They insist that everyone covers their bodies and we rented long trousers and there is a big inspection palaver before going inside. And then a shifty looking guy goes “pssst , nudge ,nudge , wink , wink , come and look at this,” and shows you a Kama Sutra carving on the outside wall. “There was a single lady there from California and the Yorkshire guys were like bees round a honey pot wanting to know if she was a rich widow. Jain is a major ancient religion alongside Hinduism and Buddhism and on a following day I saw a number of women dressed beautifully in white struggling along the major highway with a handcart and their belongings. They refuse to use modern transport and walk from place to place. We rode on to the Rawla Narial hotel , built from an old fort. It was splendid with a wonderful dinner.
Onwards to the Maharaj Singh’s hunting lodge for lunch, set next to a lake full of pelicans, flamingos , cranes and plenty of bird species with a very evocative atmosphere going back to black and white photos of the Raj era. Today’s ride was 70Kms plus along straight mixed roads through dusty, scrubby desert country with friendly locals on our village stops. The people are poor but the children are bright and sparky. Each day we stopped for chai, made on the side of the road and served either in small paper or clay cups. As the sun set we passed a colony of cranes at a small lake. Another converted fort in a small, dusty village served as our hotel.
We had a day off from cycling and drove to Jodhpur to visit the great Mehrangarth fort towering over the city. It’s overwhelming with its massive walls and beautiful rooms. The town and country around are forgettable but we walked down to the old blue painted town with its central market and delectable fabrics that some of us bought with the skilful persuasion of the world’s best and smoothest salesman. I love looking at fruit and vegetables in local markets, this one had the longest and reddest carrots I’ve ever seen. Back into the manic traffic, even on the highway there are no rules. They drive on the left here (sometimes) but at times our bus driver drove slowly on the outside lane whilst traffic overtook on the left and at other times he drove on the inside whilst traffic overtook on the right. Then suddenly you spot traffic, sometimes a truck, a motor bike a fully laden bus and even a camel pulling a cart coming towards you on the inside lane. And the Toll plazas are mayhem, leave about 6 inches between you and the car in front and someone will stick their nose in; no English queuing here. And there’s no road rage, everyone accepts the situation. In uptight South Africa there would be daily road rage gun battles.
There was some sort of religious festival on in the town and drumming and wailing went on all night. I had the first touch of Delhi belly so there wasn’t much sleep had that night. The road to Pushkar was dusty, bumpy and going through towns diabolical. You have to pick your way through the potholes, fight your way through the cows, motor bikes and people. In fact Bob collided with a child that ran into the road. India is an environmental disaster; cows feeding on litter everywhere, everyone just drops everything, filthy polluted rivers. In the cities the air pollution is overwhelming; no one clears up debris after road works, it’s just left on the side of the road. A lot of the rural people live in poverty without many of the basic services; women pump water and carry in jars home. But on the positive side one sees smartly dressed, bright faced children on their way to school and many newly built Universities; India is investing in education and this is the right way to go. Are you listening South Africa? Pushkar is a holy town, famous for its camel festival, built around a lake full of pelicans with the only Brahmin temple in India. The streets are narrow and colourful and clearly a hangout for the hippie community from around the world with, I guess, lots of pot smoking. It never ceases to amaze me to see that whatever town or city in the world one visits there are overseas tourists. There are very few secret places in the World anymore.
The next morning we rode on to Roopangarh Fort, another beautiful Maharaja owned property and had lunch there before going by bus to Jaipur. The hotel in Jaipur was once more a beautiful Maharaji’s palace and we ate outside and were entertained by traditional Indian female dancers. Jaipur has a splendid palace and fortress at Amber, probably one of the sights of India and we trekked our way up the hill along with labouring elephants carrying indulgent tourists to the top. My son Simon told me he visited this place 20 years ago in his back packing days and my mother and father also on a retirement trip now 50 years ago , so 3 generations of Naylor have visited this place. These monuments to a long lost rule are amazing.
We walked back through the gatehouse of the walled city which is traditionally painted pink and busy town to our hotel. Lots of small shops and business areas but we were never hassled and felt safe the whole time. The guys bought Mickey Mouse horns to fix to their bikes to hoot back at the motor cyclists. For me that’s another myth exposed but then I do know of friends who were robbed. In the evening we took another crazy tuk tuk ride to a nearby restaurant for dinner.
Our next ride was on a terrible road to Sariska but always the people are so friendly and crowd around us with lots of smiles and hellos. Sariska is more like a safari camp with a nice pool and appreciably warmer than before. One negative was the all night drumming again. The next morning we did a nice loop for 50K and then piled into the bus for lunch and a game viewing ride in a jeep to try to find a tiger in the Sariska Tiger Reserve. The area is mountainous and dry and unfortunately we were unsuccessful finding one despite a ranger with a tracking device; they were not far away but sleeping somewhere. But we did have excitement, there were plenty of alarm calls from the peacocks and antelopes in the region and after driving quietly around we spotted a leopard in a tree which then jumped down and dived into the bushes.
The next morning we did a nice ride which felt easier now that we are fit. I was talking about mountain biking to Simon and said the word, “Crash “ when there was one right in front of us when John touched wheels with Lena. We stopped at Chand Baori a large stepwell over a thousand years ago, something like I’ve never seen before.We then piled into the bus to the Bharitpur bird reserve , a haven of peace and quiet next to the roaring highway. There are 350 species of resident and migratory birds there and we photographed through our guide’s scope owls, herons, kingfishers, eagles, pelicans and lots of other species. It’s an extraordinary place. Our hotel had an over the top wedding with brilliant pink and purple lights illuminating the scene of live Bollywood entertainment. Indians spend fortunes on weddings, how this contrasts with the way the poor people live.
This finished our riding; the next day we drove to Agra and the Taj Mahal. I had to keep pinching myself that I was actually walking around this wonder of the world. It was built by Emperor Shah Mujn as a mausoleum for his wife and the scale, symmetry and setting of the building are truly unique. Close up the sight is just as amazing as semi-precious stones are inlaid into the marble.
We then drove to Delhi and the closer we got to the city the more hectic the traffic got, it’s everyman for himself. At the same time the pollution got worse and worse and the tighter my chest got. This has happened to me before in Kathmandu, China and it takes me two weeks to shake it off. There was just time for a farewell drink before I made off by taxi to the airport to catch the 04.00 plane home.
How to sum up this wonderful time spent in Rajasthan? It was exhilarating, colourful ,dusty , hectic, mad cap traffic ,friendly people , a great group of riders , well organized ,unique hotels to a good standard ,excellent food if you like curries , an environmental disaster with mountains of litter, air pollution in the cities , scrubby dry landscape , wonderful architecture ,forts , temples, palaces, transport of all types. It was a never to be forgotten experience.