December 31, 2000 GMT
Thar Desert

The journey was largely without incident, except for a brief involuntary tour of Delhi international airport, during which I was dangerously close to receiving clearance to take off for Switzerland.

In Jaipur I met up with a party of four German bikers, last seen in Islamabad, on the wrong side of Ramadan; Thomas (comedian), Carmen (strong-arm negotiation), Martin (mechanic and guide) and Frank (philosopher).

Frank and Carmen in Islamabad.

Frank and Carmen in Islamabad

I made up a fifth member of the group (clueless Paddy git), as they left Jaipur heading for Bikaner, as they didn't appear to have one of these. I enjoyed their concept of travel, which was to move slowly by small roads through areas unfamiliar with the heavy tread of tourists. Their method of procuring a night's lodging was a revelation to me - they pull up outside the local schoolhouse, grab the first person they see and say "Can we sleep in there?". Someone is then usually dispatched to pedal off and find the schoolteacher, who opens the place up without batting an eyelid. Presumably sleeping in schoolhouses is common practice round these parts, or maybe the actions of foreigners are so bizarre and incomprehensible that people just play along to see what's going to happen next.

What happened next was dinner, cooked on the roof of the school, and this mundane procedure seemed to fulfil the wildest fantasies of the entire village, because we had them up there, watching us intently. All of them. The crowd was such that I began to wonder about the strength of the concrete below and imagine news headlines: 'Entire village perishes after weird cult rooftop vegetable soup collapse tragedy.'

At (great) length, most of the onlookers departed and left us with the village boss men and a teacher who spoke relatively good English; we talked about drought in Rajasthan and ate some green sweet stuff in a bag which (we were assured) was a local speciality.

The next evening was spent camping out beside a well in the desert, watching the sun set behind the dark silhouettes of the thorn trees. The occasional local wandered past, and stopped for a look, but in the desert privacy seems to be respected - people look once and then move on. They don't say much.

Bikaner was by contrast big and riotous, and to walk around this town at night is an experience. The smoky streets are lit by bright pools of electric light, gas lanterns and the yellow flames of kerosene cookers boiling enormous steel woks of rice pudding or samosa-filled bubbling oil. You jostle with camels and rickshaws and donkeys and cows and mopeds, all jingling and hooting and calling out to each other. The smell is best described as pungent.

Shops in the bazaar selling bright cloth, and others selling vegetables and spices, are cheek by jowl with hi-tech electrical emporiums with crazily flashing LED's, and motorcycle repair shops lit from within by the lightning of arc welders. It is a fantastic hybrid of the Arabian Nights and Mad Max (with a bit of Floyd on Food).

It was in Bikaner that I noticed a local obsession with pants.

Gents underwear to be precise. Many many billboards and hoardings with huge painted pictures of muscular hunks, sporting the most improbable underwear you have ever seen.

Built to withstand nuclear blasts, I believe, and possibly representing the increasing nuclear tension in this area so close to the Pakistani border. I mean, the sheer volume of material in these swathes of cloth was impressive, and the designs would have been considered outmoded and frumpy by military outfitters in the 1920's, let alone Calvin Klein.

Thinking about it, this may account for the cavalier manner of Indian driving. There may be a belief that any vehicular collision will be averted by the considerable structural strength inherent in their knickers. There should be research.....

Leaving Carmen and the others behind in Bikaner, I continued on to meet up with Ollie in the desert city of Jaisalmer, an enormous multi turreted fortress city on a gravely plateau in the midst of a whole lot of nothing at all. The local speciality is the Camel Safari, which entails several days in the desert, balanced precariously on one of the most uncomfortable means of transport known to man.

In spite of my misgivings, I couldn't resist signing up for one of these trips, if only to experience first-hand the camel's supposedly colossal contempt for the human race. So Ollie and I exchanged our metal camels for the flesh and blood variety for a few days, and lurched happily off into the desert......

Posted by Connor Carson at December 31, 2000 12:00 AM GMT

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