For the first day in almost a week, we woke up at a civilized time. No more the need to beat the morning traffic, no more cities to bypass. We were in a leisurely place, an ancient place and no more hurry to be had. We woke up at a relatively saner time of around 7 AM and left Jaisalmer to go to our first target of this trip – Longewala.
Longewala seared into my psyche several years ago when I learnt about the epic battle that was fought here during 1971 India-Pakistan war. A real life Thermopylae, small group of BSF and Indian Army Infantrymen and Border guards beat back a much superior armored formation at these hallowed grounds. Later I realized that this was also the theme of the Hindi movie “Border”. Hearing about the exploits of these real life Gods I have always wanted to make a sort of pilgrimage to this place.
Shortly after leaving Jaisalmer, we were in true wild country. Though we could not see any classic sand dunes as in movies, it was still picturesque. On the way to our right, we were also amused at one massive tower whose purpose we could not figure out.
For breakfast, we stopped at a tiny dhaba in a village and ordered tea and pakodas. The person started making fresh and hot pakodas, which were simply marvelous. We also had a slight sense of the backwardness of the area from the demeanor of some people who were there who were not too enthused by the freedom enjoyed by Aadi. We observed a group of people who stopped by for tea who all came in an oversized Mahindra Pickup jeep. All the men and boys were seated in the two cabins and all the women were seated or standing in the cargo bay. Sure, they were likely to be more comfortable out in the open rather than the cabin that must have been stifling with almost a dozen males packed in but still the analogy of cattle being transported could not escape me.
As we neared Longewala, the terrain became wilder and remote and we were grabbed by an acute sense of anticipation as nearing a major milestone in our trip. This would be our westernmost sojourn in this trip and from here; we would be driving East and North to Himachal. In addition, the fact that we were barely a few dozen kilometers from India-Pakistan border was unreal. We reached Longewala, parked our jeep underneath a tree and walked into the Longewala War Museum.
There were the Museum buildings with displays and war trophies but our eyes were drawn to the trenches and vehicles abound. We walked along sand filled trenches from where infantrymen faced tanks. We watched in awe the light Mahindra jeeps carrying recoilless guns and imagined the sheer guts of the soldiers facing oncoming Patton tanks. There were pillboxes from where our soldiers did our last stand. Also there were knocked down tanks, Armored Personnel Carriers and Half Tracks of Pakistan Army, still halted at the very same locations where they were stopped in their tracks in 1971.
We were 18 kilometers from the border. This was where young boys barely 19-20 years old showed unimaginable courage against much superior forces. This was where history was made. Young men, barely out of their teens gave the supreme sacrifice for their country, for their fellow citizens. As we took in the enormity of the situation, we were overwhelmed. This was the first real temple I have ever been to in my life for here I was in the presence of Gods. Not man made Gods, fictions created to instill fear in a compliant society, but true Gods, men larger than life. We walked silently begging forgiveness to these great souls for having the temerity to trample in their footsteps.
It was also touching to see that Indian Army built here memorials not just to its martyrs but also for those Pakistani soldiers who lost their life here. These memorials have been maintained really well by the Army units stationed nearby. We did not take prior permission to visit the actual Border but my aim was accomplished. I had completed my long dreamt of pilgrimage. Now onwards to Bikaner.
We had to retrace the 100 odd kilometers to Jaisalmer before we took a bypass to get into the highway towards Bikaner. A short distance from Jaisalmer and towards Bikaner, we saw the Army War Museum. On a hunch, we decided to visit it too. Here was a more tourist friendly War Memorial with countless war trophy we got from Pakistan as well as well illustrated tableaus of the wars that these sectors had seen.
As we were about to leave from the War Museum we saw an astonishing sight. We saw three very brightly colored auto rickshaws driven by Caucasians. Even more astonishing, the auto rickshaws had “KL-7” number plates, from my own Kochi! I stopped them and asked what it was all about. They were on a “Rickshaw Run”, an event organized primarily for daredevils in UK and USA where they are given auto rickshaws to roam around India. These groups of tourists had started from Kochi and had driven through Bangalore, Goa, Mumbai and now Jaisalmer. Now they were on their way to Delhi, Agra and Kathmandu. The perspective their trip gave to our own humble endeavors was priceless. Waving goodbye to them we carried on. On our way, we could see some other Rickshaw Runners making merry driving around in the sands.
The sun had already moved past the halfway mark and our stomachs were growling in protest. We had eaten barely anything since those light pakodas and we were looking for some restaurant to have our lunch. As providence has it, we saw a decent place and decided to have our lunch.
The place was barely crowded when we came in and the place was quite quiet and relaxed. We placed order for Thalis and were just relaxing when catastrophe struck us. A couple of vehicles drove in and a large family group made their way in. Around 9-10 ladies took over a couple of tables and absolute cacophony erupted. The men of the group sat separately at another table and started demanding for the TV to be turned on. Then there was a gaggle of kids running helter skelter making absolute hell of everything. We were actually in shell shock trying to process what the hell was happening. At that time some more of the Rickshaw Runners came to this place, apparently, one of their vehicles broke down and they were in their escort vehicle. Entry of these Caucasians sent the riotous kids into even greater levels of craziness. One hapless tourist was going to the washbasin to wash his hands and this kid was following him around making faces. The guy looked at us with extreme confusion and shock and we could only respond with commiseration. We could not wait for the food to come and to gorge on it as fast as humanly possible and escape with our eardrums intact.
We literally ran out of the place, got into the jeep and barely spoke to each other for the next thirty minutes, which was the time required for the shock to wear off and for us to come to our senses. Frankly if we could only send people like these to Pakistan, it would be payback for the 30 years of cross border terrorism that they inflict on us.
Another interesting landmark we passed on our way to Bikaner was Pokhran. We had not planned for it but it was a surprise indeed. We saw the Army signboard indicating 30 kilometers to Pokhran and on a lark decided to make a detour. The detour lasted for exactly 150 meters as we saw another signboard saying Army Property – Trespassers would be shot. Making a U-turn that would make Arvind Kejriwal proud we got back on the highway to Bikaner.
Now it was a boring drive through vanilla two lane highways with most of our cotravellers being long distance truckers. One curios observation was that of a Toyota Fortuner belonging to a Hotel group whose passengers seemed to be just two dogs. They certainly seemed to be of expensive breeds and I am sure pedigree too. My smoke breaks also occasionally coincided with the Fortuner taking breaks too for the canines to attend to their nature’s call. I am sure we would all love to be as well chauffeured as those dogs.
Soon dusk set in and around 730, we entered Bikaner. Similar to our experience of Vadodara it started off as dusty and crowded but soon gave way to more pristine and gentile environs and we finally reached our hotel. Hotel Narendra Bhavan was apparently the home of the last princely ruler of Bikaner and had all the trappings as expected, from the enviously mustached door attendants to the several antique cars that littered the property. The hotel was brilliantly decorated and was one of the best hotels we stayed on during the trip. After freshening up in our rooms, we went to the restaurant and decided to treat ourselves with some Kahlua on the rocks to celebrate completion of the first leg of our trip. This was Aadi’s first experience with the caffeine-based beverage and she thoroughly enjoyed it. The food was simply marvelous and then we decided to take a stroll through the property. The Hotel had a Garden courtyard in their second floor with marble balustrades. With a bright moon serenading us, it was quite a romantic setting. Thoroughly tired yet satisfied we retired for the night.