December 10th: Juhnjunen, Rajasthan, India, 40km
Leaving Nagalwargh, I take to the sandy streets, past camels kicking up dust on the edge of town, rubbing shoulders with motor rickshaws, jeeps, buses and cows; all following road rules of their own. Lynda, beset by aching knees, has been consigned to the bus - her travels by bike have been put on hold whilst she rests in Jaipur.
The road is parched and crackled like an old scroll, gently rising and falling over the dunes that surround it. Cycling alone once again, for the first time in a long while, is both liberating and lonely. But Rajasthan is a state full of travellers 'working' the same trails, so I know it will not be long before I meet a familiar face - and Indians are all too willing to chat the afternoon away over a glass of sweet chai to allow me to really feel alone.
On this parched highway, the reflections of sequined saris catch the eye far into the distance. Women walk this desolate road (to where? from where? I wonder), balancing perfectly rounded earthenware pots on their heads, laced with jewellry and beautiful clothing.
Indeed, when I arrive in Juhnjunen and sit amongst street stalls glowing in the golden light of late afternoon, I'm surprised how much these women are dressed up, compared to their simple chadois camise wearing husbands - who patrol the streets protectively with dark eyes. Many of the women are in full chador, their faces hidden by a thin veil, earrings dangling, anklets jangling. A walnut sized ring loops through their nose, connected to the ear by a thin chain. Heavily ladened with metals, they seem almost like trophy wives, and follow traditions restricting the freedom so many Westerners take for granted. Married by arrangement, as their own children will be.
December 11th: Mandawa, 25km
In the shadow of a magnificent castle now converted into a luxurious hotel, and steeped with havelis in its backstreets, Mandawa is a showpiece Shekawati town. I find a beautiful hotel more in keeping with my budget, yet still one of the most atmospheric lodgings I have stayed in.
It's takes just a few minutes walk to discover exquisite but crumbling architecture. I lose the small army of guides down the castle backstreets and stop for a moment. Children emerge from ornate doorways and winding alleyways - staring with curious eyes in the dusty light. A family invites me in for coffee heated over a tiny wood fire. We sit in their courtyard, surrounded by beautiful washed out murals half covered by draping materials, as the children's matted hair is combed and the ingrained dust shaken out from their clothes.
By night, a power cuts lends the town an almost apocalyptic air - men wrapped in shawls huddle around fires and candles throw shadowy light over stalls offering piles of roasted nuts and fresh samosas, enveloped in darkness. Truck headlights pierce the night, picking up drifting dust and smoke. Passers by cross their path, their silhouettes eminating shafts of light like bright stars. Artesans labour over jewellry under a gas light, cows stand motionless, as I pass. My presence is followed by laughter, whispers, whistling - women have long since disappeared - all to the background of truck horns and the drone of generators.
December 13th: Fathipur, 20km
As I cycle, a moped siddles up beside me for an 'on the move' discussion about cricket. I manage to bluff my way through the conversation, concealing my ignorance with nods of the head, while dodging potholes. The moped riders are happy. With a wave, a wobbly handshake and a friendly toot of the horn, they speed of into the dust, promising tea when I pass through their village. India is full of such warming encounters.
Fathipur is home to yet more havelis, and I wonder if I am perhaps reaching saturation point in the 'HaveliWorld' of Shekawati. The market square and main bus stand is gridlocked by buses. Indians cling to their roofs and others dangle from their door frames, trying to find order in chaos. Peanut sellers are taking advantage of the stalemate to hawk their wares, feeding bundles of nuts wrapped in newspaper into fingers clutching dog eared rupee notes.
A small girl wanders over to stare at me. 'One pen, one cho-co-late, one shampoo, one savon, one rupee.' She begins the endless mantra that all the children seem to chant. I shake my head with a smile and offer her a handful of peanuts. She settles down beside me, and we both sit in silence, cracking open nuts, watching the busy market scene and awaiting the outcome. 'One bicycle?' she questions. I nod. 'Yes, I am travelling by bicycle.' 'One Mandawa?' she continues. 'Yes, I have ridden from Mandawa.' She points down the road: 'One Bikaner,' guessing correctly at my destination. It's almost as if the word 'one,' used so often when approaching foreigners, has slipped into her everyday conversation. We smile at each other, pleased with the way we've communicated, as the pile of peanut husks grow by our feet and the gridlock continues. Getting up to leave, we shake hands and I continue on my way...