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Cycling Plus

Cycling Plus #15:
Rajasthan, Shekawati region, India, Part 1
22/1/00

Rajasthan, Shekawati region, India, Part 1

In the chaos of India, away from the frenzy of its highways, lies the beautifully barren and parched expanse of Rajasthan's Thar Desert. Following sand swept and empty narrow back roads, we leave Jaipur and ride into the strong wind, swirling dust into our path. Run-down local buses bounce by with fanfare blasts of their horns, almost too wide for the crumpled tarmac roads, a tight knot of bodies clinging to their roofs. Past old men squatting by the roadside, wrapped in earthy shawls; past loping camels, heaving carts piled high with grain.

A pocket of towns and villages make up Shekawati, a region on Rajasthan's eastern fringes. Beyond the remote village of Udaipurwati, a lone fort is silhouetted on a range of hills, layered in hues of blue in the early morning haze. Against these washed out colours of the desert's edge, women clad in bright red, yellow and blue saris throw flashes of colour, glittering with sequins and jewellery. Perfectly rounded pots filled with water are balanced on their heads. Likewise, men appear as if from nowhere. Their electric orange turbans compliment magnificent handlebar moustaches and earrings that hang like golden tear drops, gleaming in the sun.

We stop to refresh on samosas and chai, and are soon surrounded by men and boys, draped lazily over each other in the hot afternoon sun. Holding fingers, they giggle and watch us. Some observe the bikes quietly, others pour out a stream of Hindi, marvelling at the 'Gear System,' still the cutting edge of Indian bike technology. The constant invitations for tea and bombardment of the same questions - 'What is your good name? And your country?' - are always friendly, but sometimes tiring after a day's ride. Lunch is usually a thali, the traditional meal of dahl, curry and chapati ladled out on to a steel plate until we can eat no more. In one village, the cook complains that everyone comes to watch us, but no one comes to eat.

A dusty clearing, with young kids absorbed in cricket, marks the edge of Nawalgarh, a small and bustling market town in the heart of Shekawati. Bicycles, motor rickshaws and camels rub shoulders along its sandy streets, lined with general stores, fruit stalls, tea houses and eateries, squeezed between crumbling but majestic Havelis. These vast mansions were once the homes of wealthy traders who lavished their wealth upon them. Now their ornate facades are worn by time, half covered by posters advertising the latest Bollywood blockbusters. Beneath a coat of dust, each wall is intricately painted; murals depicting epic tales of Hindu deities and large nosed Englishmen in motor cars, a reminder of colonial days. We wander through a tangle of backstreets and gaze upon these crumbling works of art, collecting a trail of chanting kids - One rupee! One pen! - and a toothless guide.

Rajasthan, a realm of desert forts and Rajput palaces, is as much on the luxury circuit as the backpacker trail. Historic buildings now accommodate five star hotels steeped in opulence. Our room, a little more in keeping with our budget, is tucked away in a restaurant specialising in delicious Indian sweets served in pools of syrup. The colourful and lively market scene it overlooks - shoppers contemplating great piles of fruit, vegetables, nuts, dates and spices - dies down with the setting sun. As darkness falls, the streets are left to the cows, gathering in the courtyards as if holding a silent conference, vacuuming the streets of leftovers and litter.

And in the emptiness of the desert, beneath a night sky speckled with stars, the rest of the town drifts to sleep.



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