December 7th: Jaipur to Reengus, Rajasthan, India, 65km
Teaming up with German cyclist Lynda, who I met in China, we leave the pink city of Jaipur and set our sights on 'off the trail' Shekawati, home to Rajasthan's most beautiful havelis. After two weeks in Delhi and the inevitable palid complexion and ' Delhi Belly' that it brings, it's invigorating to be cycling once more, past loping camels with shavings like fur stencils, towards the eastern edge of the Thar Desert. Along a dusty and sand lined road a strong headwind gusts against us until we pull into a government rest house; back on our own, out of guide book territory. Supper is a delicious thali, a traditional Indian meal of chapatis, curry and dahl, ladled out on to the 'TV dinner' partitioned steel plate until we could eat no more. Like a magnet, the usual crowd gather, while the cook complains that everyone comes to watch us, but no one comes to eat...
December 8th: 'Little' Udaipur, 55km
The landscape has changed. Across arid scrubland, we follow a parched and crackled tarmac road - as crackled as the faces of the old men, wrapped in shawls, who gather under the shade of sinewy trees in dusty villages. Against the washed out colours of the desert's edge, red saris and golden jewellery throw flashes of colour - women digging irrigation ditches or filling earthenware pots with water and balancing them on their heads. Camels pull carts piled high with grain; their drivers wear earings that hang like golden tear drops, gleaming in the sun. Electric orange turbans contrast against their dark skin, and handlebar moustaches lend them a noble air as they gently steer their loping creatures.
We find a guesthouse with a simple room off a courtyard. The baba - manager - doesn't speak a word of English but a passing translator makes all the arrangements. It's a peaceful little escape from the action outside - our arrival anywhere turns heads; if there are people around a crowd will gather. Refreshing on samosas and chai, each eatery we stop in is soon surrounded by men and boys, draped lazily over each other in the hot sun, holding fingers, giggling, watching us and the bikes. A tight circle soon forms, which others squeeze into and enlarge. Generally friendly and helpful, it's our own frustrations which make us take this natural curiosity. Certainly, it is intense and unending - the same questions time and time again - and either teaches patience...or hastens insanity...! We buy our supplies from the market - guavas, potato fruit and papaya - and retire to the room. When I pop out to wash as the sun sets, our two travelling Indian neighbours, clad in traditional chadois camise, bound over to shake hands, which they do every few seconds of our stilted Hindi/English conversation. They ask me my country, my name and my religion - Indian FAQs - delighted to chat even though we barely understand each other, spending most of the time nodding and smiling.
December 9th: Nawalgarh, 35kms
The thin road we ride is barely wider than a bus. Unceremoniously we are dumped into the sand everytime one roars by, a crowd of Indians clinging to its roof, heads peering out of windows. It's taken a while to leave town, with so many locals inviting us to drink chai, the Indian sweet milk tea. Served in glasses from wire holders, a boy is dispensed to the tea shop, amid more smiling and nodding with our hosts, and exchanging of addresses. Finally we escape - our backdrop is a mountain range layered in hues of blues and greys in the early morning haze. Empty old forts perch on parched hill tops, dusty village clearings make children's cricket grounds and Hindu temples abound. The earthy browns of the scrubland is punctuated only by the bright colours of turbans and saris - everything else is softened by a layer of dust.
A camel caravan passes by, red scarves tied around their long necks, each trailer filled with an extended family huddled together in shawls despite the beating sun. Goats and mangy dogs follow, along with scraggly haired children, wide eyed and wearing the uniform flip flops, haggard clothes and simple nose and ear rings.
Nawalgarh is a small, bustling market town. The streets are lined with bike shops, general stores, tea houses and eateries, set amongst crumbling but majestic havelis, once the homes of wealthy businessmen. Now their ornate facades are worn by the elements, time and modernisation - half covered by posters advertising the latest Bollywood blockbusters. But their architectural balance and dignity cannot be denied - each wall is covered in intricate murals depicting Hindu deities - Vishnu and Ganesh amongst others - and trains, large nosed Europeans in motor cars and other reminders of British colonisation.
It's not long before we are tracked down by the local English teacher. 'You belong to Churchill and you belong to Hitler', announces our guide for the day pointing to me and Lynda. 'I teach history as well,' he adds by way of explanation... We are duly shown into the inner sanctum of what is now a local restaurant - the Hall of Mirrors where the king entertained ladies of leisure. This 'splendid' room, outlandish in its lavishness, is encrusted with tiny mirrors, stained glass and precious stones, while its ceiling murals depict scenes of game hunting and magnificent forts. It was here that the king lay on a bed of roses and invited dancers to entertain him...
Our room is a little more in keeping with our budget, squeezed into a restaurant specialising in delicious Indian sweets served up in pools of syrup. The colourful and lively market it overlooks - with great piles of fruit, vegetables, nuts, dates and spices - quietens and dies down as the sun sets. Soon, the streets are left to the cows, who gather in the courtyards as if holding a silent conference, and the rest of the town is left to sleep.