December 14th: Fatehpur to Bikaner, Rajasthan, India, 170km
After the crumpled back roads of Shekawati, National Highway 11 feels as smooth as the marble floors of the Taj Mahal.
Leaving Fatehpur, the road gently climbs and dips over dunes - Like a long velvet ribbon, it disappears into the distance, dotted with dusty villages and the odd town.
There is little on offer by way of food, and its almost 100km before I stop for lunch at a roadside restaurant, decked with 'charpois' - beds bound with rope. The usual crowd of onlookers gather, content to sit in the sun and observe me work my way through a pile of chapatis and dahl. Ever curious, they ask the same questions every traveller in India is asked - 'What is your good name? And your country?' Every so often, a group wanders over to the bike for a closer inspection, marvelling at what the Indian's have majestically titled, 'The Gear System,' enthralled by this piece of cutting edge technology.
I arrive in Bikaner as night is falling, a long day of cycling behind me. Back in the city, back amongst the noise and smells of buses, rickshaws, mopeds, bicycles, camels and cows, all jostling for a place in the chaos of the Indian road. I follow the lead of other local cyclists and squeeze under the railway barrier and cross the tracks. The railway station is a hive of activity. Opposite the station lies a strip of restaurants, fruit stalls and hotels - home for the next few days. My room is cheap and basic, tucked into a side street and blocked from all natural light, run by a friendly Sikh. After devouring a few kilos of fruit - bananas, chicus, papaya and guavas - I close the door to a couple of kids lingering in the hope of a souvenir from England, and fall fast asleep.
December 15th: Bikaner, Rajasthan, India
An escape from the dust, smoke and bustle of the city, Bikaner Fort is a showpiece of beautiful and ornate design. A power cut lends its palatial rooms a sombre air but on the roof, beneath the glare of the morning sun, fine details carved into endless archways and staircases are apparent. A guide talks our group through life in the days of the Rajput; his words brought to life by walls lined with black and white photos of elephant processions in the streets of Bikaner, polo games with the British and family portraits of immaculately clad Princes staring solemnly into the camera.
During summer's oppressive heat of the day, the Rajah whiled away the hot afternoons in a wind palace at the very summit of the fort. From its lofty position, he was able to observe approaching visitors. A lift had been installed as the Rajah was keen to keep up with the latest technological developments, while murals depicting steam trains showed other signs of 'progress' in Rajhestan. Among various rooms encrusted with precious stones and mirrors, one was filled with fascinating memorabilia. My favourite - a special soup spoon designed to keep the Rajah's magnificent moustache unmarked. His outlandish long whiskers were a source of great pride - each hair could be plucked and put down against a financial acquisition - a kind of collateral. When the money was paid, the whisker was returned! An enormous hall, intricately carved with religious detail from local red sandstone, housed an unexpected original WW2 RAF fighter plane, another highlight in this lavish fort.
India is full such curious oddities, and just a few kilometres out of town, backed by desert, the search for the perfect camel goes on, in 'Asia's largest camel breeding farm.' Every afternoon, a handful of visitors gather to wander around pens filled with bow legged, knobbly kneed camels. These long faced creatures with incredibly individual expressions spend the day dozing or chewing the cud, between visits to the restricted 'biological research centres,' patrolled by an armed guard...
December 16th: Bikaner to Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India - 330km
Rob, a fellow Brit on a journey from Japan, is also heading for Jaisalmer. We set off together into the desert, past truck upon truck bursting at the sides with cotton. It feels good not to be cycling alone across this barren and rather desolate stretch of Rajasthan. The next few days are spent exchanging travel stories, stopping for tea and thali in truck stops, and camping out beneath a sky lit by an increasingly full moon. The silence of the desert is a welcome escape from the cacophony of sounds that accompany each and every Indian city. We pitch the tent and boil up water under the light of the blood red sun as it drops behind the flat horizon - an almost full moon then takes over as we sip on coffee and crack open monkey nuts. Snug in our sleeping bags, cocooned in the tent, alone in the desert...listening to the BBC World Service and the lilting tones of the newsreader...far from home.
December 18th: Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India
After two nights under the stars and 330km of riding, we roll into Jaisalmer, a desert city surrounding a magnificent old fort. It's been an easy, peaceful few days to ride a distance a speeding bus might cover in just five or six hours. Cycling makes me feel I've undergone a process of osmosis, subjected to the land and its people, day in, day out. Over breaks for food and chats, slowly notching up the kilometres. We pass a convoy of heavy armour - tanks and troop carriers - a reminder of the military presence so close to the border with Pakistan. The soldiers are a friendly bunch, as we find out over glasses of chai when one of the Czech made troop carriers breaks down.
We've been warned about Jaisalmer's notoriety for street touts...Still on the city outskirts, a motorbike sidles up beside us from the hotel we're planning to stay in. News travels fast - our imminent arrival has been telephoned ahead by a lookout, and some touts are here to escort us to their hotel. Their orders: we're not to be 'stolen' by anyone else. It feels distinctly 007'esque. I almost expect him to purr - 'Mr Gilbert, I presume?' It's another reminder of today's competition for tourism in India. So many hotels have sprung up that an army of touts patrol the bus stations and main streets, pouncing on backpackers, enticing or lying relentlessly, to get their way.
We arrive just outside the walls of the old city and are shown a spacious attached double room for just a dollar and a half. The catch: we're 'encouraged' to go on a hotel organised camel trek, the main reason why tourists come to Jaisalmer. We'll deal with them later - we have priorities. Tuck into a thali, munch some fruit, surf the web and explore...