From glorious Amritsar, I had to make a decision. I was either going to stay in the North and take a train to Rishikesh where I would meditate at an Ashram, or I would take a bus South and explore the deserts of Rajasthan. I’m so glad I decided to go South!
I said goodbye to the sleeper trains and hello to sleeper buses! In many ways, they were a lot better. I almost fit in the beds and you were given a lot more privacy. You could open your window to get as much or as little air as you wanted. The only bad part was if you have ever been in India, you know how often the drivers like to honk their horn. It’s near constant. No ear plugs can block this noise out, but I certainly tried.
I arrived to the Northern most outpost in India’s desert state of Rajasthan, a city called Bikaner (Bee-kah-nair). Like most of the desert cities, it has a big famous fort and little else. I first started with a tour of the Maharajah’s Palace. The palace itself has been converted into a 5-Star hotel which looks stunning, but there is a little museum for those of us choosing the 6 dollars per night lodging option. The museum was just filled without lots of photographs and paintings, but many of the photographs of British lords and ladies visiting India really inspired me.
I then made my way to the imposing Junagarh Fort. Dead in the center of town, the tops of it’s walls give you a great view of the surrounding area. The fort itself has long since been out of use, and now just remains an empty museum. I wandered the many empty rooms at my own pace, imagining who lived there and how many battles took place outside the ramparts. A lot of the tile work in the fort was really intricate and beautiful, but the day was one of the hottest in a long time and I sought shelter quickly.
Even better than shade is a shady auto rickshaw ride, so I made my way to one of the more mysterious locations on my trip. The Karni Mata Temple in Deshnok 30km outside of Bikaner is the best reasons to go to Bikaner at all. My best recollection of the legend of Karni Mata is that her son died and when she asked the gods to bring him back, they did at a curious price. All her sons and the inhabitants of the temple were turned to rats. Now, rats are considered holy at this temple and are given free reign.
Let me repeat that. The temple is filled with 20,000 rats that run around at will. They are considered holy, so people come and feed them daily, leaving out cream and other delicious baked goods. I went at 5:30PM so I only saw about 2,000 rats. Apparently, at night, the floor is unwalkable. There is nothing really to see at the temple besides rats, but there are so many rats! You can’t take a step without watching a rat whiz by right where you were about to put your foot. They pop out of holes in the walls, they climb the gates and balustrades, and occasionally they get into little territorial wars. It’s a very weird and wonderful place, but certainly not for those with any kind of fear.
The next day I faced a different kind of animal – I did the requisite camel safari. We trooped 20km outside of Bikaner and I climbed onto the camel. The saddle of blankets was so thick I could barely feel any camel underneath me at all. It’s a bit of a rocky ride, but it’s a long slow back and forward bump, not a quick bouncy one. Either way, it hurts.
However, the desert is the main attraction, and I can’t say that I have great things to say. The desert never really changes that much. I saw a few deer, but one patch of mostly sand and bushes looks a lot like the next kilometer of it. The novelty of riding a camel also wears off pretty quickly. A half day of camel riding (not to mention I was feeling under the weather) was plenty enough for me, and I returned home for a long nap, before catching night bus number two.