Yet another early start to the day to beat traffic in major cities. Day 1 was Bangalore, Day 2 was Pune-Mumbai and on this day it was Ahmedabad. When I visited Ahmedabad in 2017 I got thoroughly confused. People were moving when traffic lights turned Red, people were stopping when traffic lights turn Green, people were driving everywhere at all times regardless of traffic lights. Sometimes people were even driving through other vehicles. Besides the day was 14th of January, Sankranti day and we would rather not get entangled amidst kites and maanjhaas.
Keeping all this in mind we left Vadodara around 4AM and soon got into the Vadodara – Ahmedabad expressway. I was merrily cruising at around 110 kmph when I suddenly realized that the jeep was running on its reserves. I had miscalculated my fuel stops. Cruising speed dropped to 80 and as we entered Ahmedabad my eyes were scanning for any open fuel station.
You know how it is with Murphy’s law, when you are tanked up you see hundreds of fuel stations eager to serve you but when you are running on fumes every fuel station is shut. We were leaving expressways and getting into narrower roads and I was getting a bit worried. Here I am, a genius with fully 3 jerry cans completely empty in the back, running on reserve diesel. Thankfully we found a fuel station open in that odd hour and tanked up I set off towards Jaisalmer.
The irrational fears and the ecstasy of tanking up all conspired to get our stomachs growling. We stopped at a highway eatery which seemed to be well patronized by other travelers. We hoped to have some Gujarati snacks but these guys served only Pizzas and Burgers. I am a fan of these continental delicacies but it felt weird that here in the middle of nowhere a restaurant serves only Pizzas and Burgers. We sampled a plate of fries and they were nothing to sing paeans about either. Thoroughly bemused but also hungry we carried on.
Our hunger pangs were sated sometime later when we stopped at a restaurant near Siddhpur. As I got down from the vehicle I found that the door was obstructed by a string that wound from the rear view mirror and got itself entangled to the back of the jeep. Aadi warned me that it could be one of those kite strings and they can get deadly sharp. Heeding her advice proved wise as it indeed was such a deadly string and even while handling it with my shemagh I could sense that lightest contact could break the skin. Consigning it to trash we sat down for breakfast. No more insistence on Gujarati cuisine, we settled for couple of plates of grilled sandwiches which went down like manna for famished souls.
Sometime later on our way to Jaisalmer thanks to the glory of Google Maps we got lost and we had to take a U-turn. Now the Maps navigated through around 15 kms of rural roads to get back to the Jaisalmer highway. These were not state highways, these were true country lanes where we were recipients of countless curious eyes. If and when another vehicle came from opposite end we would have to squeeze out of the roads. And it was so beautiful. So calm and beautiful. Countless unknown birds flying all around, little kids playing everywhere, it was fun being lost. Some of my best adventures have happened when I got lost, most of the times thanks to Google Maps itself. I knew this would not be the last time Google would take me on an adventure and I was proven right later that day itself.
Shortly after getting back to the highway to Jaisalmer we stopped for a break. The road seemed like a green tunnel with an overhang of trees. It was at this break that I noticed some strange circular shapes on the jeep’s side canvas. They were a series of perfect circles cleared from the dust. I have no clue what made those perfect shapes but the Nazca lines and Crop Circles certainly came to mind.
With every advancing kilometer we were going the northernmost we have driven in India, the previous record being held by Rann of Kutch. We were also eager for the Rajasthan border to arrive so we could start seeing sand dunes. Aadi was poring over the satellite imagery in Google maps trying to identify when the dunes begin and I was trying to see if I could sense the terrain changing in the distance. Sure the land was extremely parched but there were bushes everywhere as far as the eye could see. I could not wait to take a few pics of the Thar next to the Thar sand dunes.
As we started approaching the Rajasthan border we were amused by yet another amusing specimen, these trucks so overloaded with cargo that they just look like white clouds moving on the road. We can excuse regular Leyland and Tata trucks with massive bales overflowing everywhere but the heights was when I saw a Mahindra Pickup jeep similarly loaded. The overflowing cargo bags were not just sweeping the roads but they were also blocking the windshield save for an A4 size gap. It was a wonder how that guy was managing to drive such a contraption.
The amazing roads of Gujarat gave way to the decent enough roads of Rajasthan. Going farther from the border traffic started to thin out however there was considerable truck movement. There was a lot of quarry activity in the area catering I am sure to the Marble and Granite showrooms of South India and elsewhere. One thing we did notice is that Fastag uniformly did not work across Rajasthan. We were able to breeze through toll plazas everywhere in the country however in Rajasthan they never worked. We were not terribly inconvenienced as the queues were also negligible.
As we carried on we realized with a pang that it was unlikely that we would get to see the dunes today. We had already passed through the areas where we believed desert started and dunes might be there but we realized that the arid bushy terrain is the Thar Desert. I am sure there are dunes in some areas but our hopes of encountering dunes right by the side of the highway was looking slim.
As noon approached we were thoroughly hungry, a few grilled sandwiches is a terrible joke on a 105 kg gastronome. Just ahead of Barmer we stopped for fueling up and opposite the fuel station we saw a restaurant. It looked fancy enough and we decided to check it out. The restaurant had an attached art gallery and handicrafts shop. The restaurant had a well-appointed menu and we decided to order lavishly. Butter milk was followed by rotis with a dish called Panchkuta. I am generally not a fan of vegetarian dishes and usually the more exotic the ingredients less amused I get. But this was a mind-blowing experience. The dish Panchkuta, which the restaurateurs described as a preparation from five types of vegetables (one of them even a thorn of a local plant) was simply amazing!! Usually Aadi orders the exotic vegetables and I stick to the Paneer Butter Masala but this time the Paneer was relegated to the sidelines.
After lunch while Aadi was checking the Handicrafts I was observing some strange photographs on the wall. These were pics of some ancient temples and seemed very interesting. The restaurateurs explained that this is an ancient abandoned and haunted temple complex a few kilometers away in the middle of Thar Desert. I read up on the place in Wikipedia and was hooked. So we decided to head towards Kiradu temple.
We took a deviation to West a few kilometers ahead and drove over narrow roads to Kiradu. There were barely any people in the region though there was significant Army presence. From the maps we realized that the India-Pakistan border is also not too far off. It was an easy 30 kilometer detour and we reached the Kiradu Temple complex.
There were barely any visitors in the area and after purchasing our tickets we walked inside. The 11th century temple complex is said to have been abandoned after invasions from Turkic invaders before the time of Mughals. Folklore has it that the village was abandoned after the curse of a sage. The people of the village did not take care of the sage’s disciple so he cursed the village to be lost in time.
Well the place did have an eerie feel to the place. There were 2 temples that were more or less completely restored but the rest of the area was undergoing archaeological excavation. We could see countless blocks here and there marked for reassembly so I guess in a few more years maybe the archaeologists could completely restore the original complex. Along with us there were a few youth around who mainly seemed to be interested in selfies. Our own contemplation of the tryst with history was interrupted by a more dangerous resident of the complex. We had seen the black goat jumping around the complex as we approached it but now it was almost attacking us. Its eyes were quite crazy and the damned thing was chasing us. I know I am a thorough non-vegetarian but I have never been a fan of mutton. So I really could not understand why its enmity towards me. But then again it was bullying Aadi too, who is a thorough vegetarian. Goats are crazy.
Now we recalculated our routes to Jaisalmer and set off from Kiradu. Google maps had shown me a shortcut that could prevent me from doubling back to Barmer and of course I trusted Google maps. The narrow roads from Barmer continued for a short distance but then gave way to dirt tracks and finally no tracks. We were in the middle of absolute nowhere, in classic Thar Desert conditions and the road had just ended. Google maps still showed a road ahead, apparently just 15 kms ahead we would be joining a main road so I carried on. The track was not even hard surface with white sands and occasional crevasses that I had to drive through trusting the Thar’s off road capabilities. Kilometers went on and still we were nowhere. We occasionally drove through green groves of trees bang in the middle of desert with of course the ubiquitous goats and sheep appearing to block our roads. Finally we reached a sort of junction. There was a dirt track going towards the right and a concrete road going towards the left. We made the natural choice and turned left. Crossing another bend of the road and we found ourselves in the courtyard of somebody’s house. Again, not the front gate, but the inner courtyard of somebody’s house. Immediate U-turn and we decided to trace the dirt track that led to right.
Google maps still told us to retrace the road through that house. Perhaps Google expected us to drive through somebody’s bed room. As I zoomed out and saw that as per Google there is no road after 2 kilometers. Well we had reached thus far so we decided to continue. The theoretical end of road happened, we drove on, Google repeatedly told us we are not on any roads, but we drove on and finally after 5 kilometers we found ourselves driving on hard surface. We hailed a tractor driver and asked for directions and we carried on. Soon we were seeing tipper trucks plying so we knew we could not be too far off from civilization and roads. Thus comforted we started to appreciate the vistas around us. Occasionally we drove by these hillocks/mounds which had multicolored soils. They basically resembled Cassata ice-creams in that they seemed to be composed of multiple layers of soil of various colors. They were also quite uniformly shaped suggesting it could be manmade but were also sufficiently huge that it seemed natural.
Finally after much cursing of Google we finally entered the highway and for the first time in many hours I could drive at a speed above 30 kmph. Now afternoon was giving way to evening and we watched in astonishment as the surrounding terrain started to change its colors with changing light. From a distance we observed a hill which was actually Jaisalmer Fort. Around 5 PM we entered Jaisalmer navigating towards our hotel, Hotel Golden Haveli. Truth be said my first impressions were not great as the approach roads were so terrible I preferred the dirt tracks I had driven over earlier in the day. But then we reached the hotel itself and it was amazing and well appointed. After a seamless check-in we went towards the Jaisalmer Fort.
The main challenge at the Jaisalmer Fort was to find our way by avoiding the hawkers and guides. There were a profusion of leather goods shops which were making my eyes twinkle. We had read about a cannon view point so we decided to check it out. While the view was magnificent there were too many wannabes taking selfies that we decided to look for a place to rest for a bit. As luck would have it next to the view point we found a café with some of the best views of Jaisalmer and the surrounding country.
Coffee, fries, cigarette and an amazing bird’s eye view. It was a perfect end to an amazing day of travels.
As the night set and a cool desert breeze made us long for our jackets we set off towards our hotel. We browsed through some leather good shops, I was particularly interested in a camel leather bag. However Aadi exercised her veto power – the color was too yucky for her. We settled for some small curios, fridge magnets and bric-a-bracs and Tshirts.
Dinner was a candle light affair on the terrace of our hotel with amazing view of the Jaisalmer Fort lit up. We decided to take it easy that night, no more early morning wake up to beat any city traffic, we are out of the crazy cities and in more leisurely environs. Besides our destination for tomorrow is likely to open up only at 9AM. Thus ended a magnificent day of travels